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While the rest of the country’s schools were losing ground in math during the COVID pandemic, students in a small rural Alabama school district soared. 

Piedmont City schools landed in the top spot among all school districts nationwide in a comparison of math scores in 2019 and 2022.

Other Alabama school districts fared well, too, but Piedmont, a small, 1,100-student district where 7 out of 10 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, stood out. Nationwide, students are on average half a year behind in math, researchers say.

Schools nationwide are scrambling to find ways to recover unfinished learning over the past three years, using federal relief money to hire interventionists to work with students and placing students in high-dose tutoring sessions after school and during the summer. 

Piedmont has pursued an approach it began before the pandemic: It focused on changing its regular school day and working with its current staff. 

Superintendent Mike Hayes said two keys for success have been giving teachers more regular time to dig into student data and increasing instructional time where math teachers can focus on specific skills.

“We made a total transformation about five years ago,” he said, “where we decided that we were going to let data make every decision as far as instructional changes were concerned. And that we were going to involve the teachers, and that it was going to be a collaborative effort and we were going to drill down as minutely as we could.”

Math teacher Cheyenne Crider helps a seventh-grade student with a math problem at Piedmont Middle School in Piedmont, Ala., on Aug. 31, 2023. Credit: Trisha Powell Crain/ AL.com

Rebecca Dreyfus, with TNTP, a national nonprofit devoted to helping schools improve student learning, helps teachers apply best practices from research to the classroom.

Dreyfus said targeted instruction for small groups of students has years of research and evidence to back it up as an effective way for teachers to teach and students to learn. Pinpointing what skills need shoring up – and using systematic and explicit instruction, as backed up by the “science of math” – makes it even more effective.

“The short answer is that using data effectively and efficiently to plan and monitor instruction is always going to make instruction better for kids,” Dreyfus said.

Related: The science of reading swept reforms into classrooms. What about math?

Because math is a subject that builds on itself year after year, teachers need to make sure students, even those who are struggling, are keeping up with grade level learning. 

The Math Problem 

Sluggish growth in math scores for U.S. students began long before the pandemic, but the problem has snowballed into an education crisis. This back-to-school-season, the Education Reporting Collaborative, a coalition of eight newsrooms, will be documenting the enormous challenge facing our schools and highlighting examples of progress. The three-year-old Reporting Collaborative includes AL.com, The Associated Press, The Christian Science Monitor, The Dallas Morning News, The Hechinger Report, Idaho Education News, The Post and Courier in South Carolina, and The Seattle Times.

“You’re not just pulling kids to teach them a skill that they should have had a few years ago that is not coming back,” she said. “We’re trying to teach them something that will ensure they have access to the grade-level rigor.”

“I think the data days give us an opportunity to really dig in to where the weaknesses are and adjust instruction.”

Cassie Holbrooks, who teaches fourth grade math in Piedmont City schools

A look at math scores for spring 2022 shows the district ranked twelfth in the state on math proficiency, with 57 percent of students reaching proficiency. Statewide, 30 percent of students scored proficient in math.

That’s a lot of progress over the last five years; in 2017, when Hayes took over as superintendent, Piedmont students ranked 35th in math proficiency.

“Once we made that decision and stuck to it and made changes and allowed our teachers time to look at the data and dive into the data, it paid off,” Hayes said.

Related: Teachers conquering their math anxiety

Hayes said his team knew that if they wanted teachers to use student data well they needed to give teachers more time to dig in and analyze the numbers. 

So they made the school day longer and freed up enough full days to allow for “data days,” Hayes said.

Every four weeks, teachers get together to examine student data. 

Piedmont Elementary School in Piedmont, Alabama. Aug. 31, 2023. Credit: Trisha Powell Crain/ AL.com

“I think the data days give us an opportunity to really dig in to where the weaknesses are and adjust instruction,” said Cassie Holbrooks, who teaches fourth grade math. “We’re able to take those small groups and adjust all our instruction based on the data that we look at.”

Sixth grade teacher Lisa Hayes, who has taught for 35 years, said when she joined the district five years ago she was surprised to see how hard teachers worked during those data days.

“When I came here and we had a workday,” she said, “you don’t sit in your room. You’re in here [the media center] most of the day, digging through test scores.”

Understanding student data is the main ingredient when it comes to knowing what to do next.

Related: How can schools dig out from a generation worth of lost math progress?

After thoroughly examining student data, in addition to making plans for classroom lessons, teachers decide how to use targeted small group instruction – where a teacher works directly with a small number of students to target particular skills.

Grouping two to six students together to work on an identified, specific skill has been used for reading instruction and in younger grades for a long time. 

There is less research on the use of targeted small group instruction in math and in middle grades – but researchers like Dreyfus say that the same principles of correctly identifying students that need extra help on certain skills, rather than simply pulling out children who are “behind,” applies.

“We’ve always done small groups in reading,” third-grade teacher Windy Casey said. “But [doing small groups in] math is really just the last few years.”

Piedmont Elementary School Principal Brigett Stewart and Piedmont Middle School Principal Chris Hanson on Aug. 31, 2023, in Piedmont, Ala. Credit: Trisha Powell Crain/AL.com

Math specialist Keri Richburg oversees all training for middle school math teachers statewide through the Alabama Math Science and Technology Initiative, or AMSTI. She’s working to help more middle grade educators use small group instruction effectively.

“For a long time,” Richburg said, “it is something our K-5 friends have done a lot better at implementing in their classrooms than our sixth through eighth grade.” 

Richburg said that research supports the use of regular testing, called formative assessments, to help teachers figure out  which students need personalized help.

“The idea is that we’re using evidence of student learning and making in-the-moment decisions about our instruction for each of our students within those small groups,” she said. 

Related: College students are struggling with basic math. Professors blame the pandemic

Throughout Piedmont’s elementary and middle schools, soon after the start of the school year in August, students worked busily on their devices playing learning games or finding solutions to math problems while their math teacher worked with a small group in a space designed for up-close instruction. 

Those who weren’t using an iPad to work on their Individualized Learning Path, created from assessments of what a student needs or wants to learn, wrote in their math journals. 

In Holbrook’s class, she worked with four students in a small group on how to subtract 278 from 4,000, borrowing from the “0” in each place. Each student had a white board, and Holbrooks modeled the steps students needed to take, working with each student who needed additional attention.

Superintendent Hayes said when Piedmont’s math teachers first expanded small group instruction beyond reading in elementary grades five years ago, teachers said they didn’t have enough time in a regular class to do small group instruction well. So the district expanded math and English language arts to 80 minutes every day in the middle school and 120 minutes each day in the elementary school.

“We’ve always done small groups in reading. But [doing small groups in] math is really just the last few years.”

Third-grade teacher Windy Casey, Piedmont City schools

High school math teacher Landon Pruitt – who taught at the middle school until four years ago – said moving to 80-minute math classes made a big difference in his ability to work with students in small groups. 

“In a 52- or 53-minute class,” Pruitt said, “there’s no way you can consistently do [small groups] and work on getting through the standards that you have to cover.” 

The school also had to help teachers adjust classroom management techniques so that small groups and independent work could both occur effectively. Hayes said gave teachers a program to monitor each students’ screen simultaneously was the solution.

“I think our teachers will tell you that they have better control of the classroom and are able to see what’s going on in the classroom and address that immediately,” he said. 

Dreyfus said getting targeted small group instruction right is hard. “What it comes down to is: Are teachers being given the support, the resources, the time and development and space to do a hard job really well?”

Those are the pieces Hayes said the district wants to make sure are in place.

“I’m not sure we have a secret sauce or anything earth shattering,” Hayes said, “but we do have teachers and administrators committed to being intentional with data and letting that data drive small group instruction. Changing instruction in real time to meet our students where they are, may be the most important step in our data driven instructional process.”

This story was produced by AL.com as part of The Math Problem, a series by The Education Reporting Collaborative, a coalition of eight newsrooms that is documenting the math crisis facing schools and highlighting progress. Members of the Collaborative are AL.com, The Associated Press, The Christian Science Monitor, The Dallas Morning News, The Hechinger Report, Idaho Education News, The Post and Courier in South Carolina, and The Seattle Times.

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