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Kathy Neumann’s third graders at Longfellow Elementary School in Columbia, Maryland, struggled to understand fractions during this pandemic-disrupted school year. With remote learning, they couldn’t do their usual classroom activity of cutting strips of construction paper into halves, quarters and thirds.

“Doing it on a computer screen just is not the same thing,” said Neumann, who is eager to get back to using “old-school materials” — paper, pencils and rulers — when her district returns to in-person learning this fall. “I’ve seen a difference this year without using our hands-on tools. No matter what we put on the computer, no matter how much fun it looks, they’re not getting it.”

Still, Neumann believes most students will bounce back, if those who returned to in-person learning in the spring are any indication.

“At home, they’re [lying] on the sofa, doing half the work. When they come into my classroom, they’re sitting in front of me. They’re raising their hands. They’re doing their work. It’s almost like Jekyll and Hyde,” she said. Neumann said she was  “very optimistic” that if things returned  close to normal this year, “these kids will be in a good spot.”

Administrators are crafting plans for the 2021-22 school year to help children catch up on what they may have missed in math during the pandemic. Some students have fallen behind, widening already existing inequities in education. For example, research by McKinsey & Company found that Black and Hispanic students are less likely to have access to technology. The McKinsey report said the lack of access, left unaddressed, can translate into bigger achievement gaps for these students, who as a group already have lower math scores than their white and Asian peers.

Various manipulatives, including fractions on a number line, fraction tiles and fraction towers, are among the hands-on materials used in Kathy Neumann’s third grade class in Howard County, Md. Neumann is looking forward to working with such materials with her students when they return for the 2021-22 school year. Credit: Courtesy of KATHY NEUMANN

During the COVID-19 crisis, students’ performance in math has taken a hit more than any other content area, according to a recent study by the NWEA. And, since math concepts build upon one another, it’s critical to make up lost ground sooner rather than later, all while maintaining student enthusiasm for the subject.

The Howard County district to which Longfellow Elementary belongs, in the suburbs southwest of Baltimore, is embracing many of the practices that experts say kids need for math support. The district is offering summer school to those who need extra instruction, and in the fall, it plans to focus on the math content deemed most important, using flexible instruction. Administrators are looking for ways to squeeze in more time for math help during the school day and are considering extending traditional school hours for tutoring. And rather than labeling some kids as being below expectations, the district will provide targeted support to boost math confidence and accelerate learning for all students.

Back to Class: How schools can rebound

This series of stories — produced in partnership with the Christian Science Monitor and the Ed Labs at AL.com, the Dallas Morning News, the Fresno Bee and the Seattle Times — explores how schools and districts have embraced best practices for back to school.

Read the series

Related: How to boost math skills in the early grades

Like many districts across the country, Howard County switched to virtual instruction in the spring of 2020. That continued until February 2021, when buildings gradually reopened with a hybrid model. The district plans to return to a full-time, in-person schedule for 2021-22.

John SanGiovanni, coordinator of elementary mathematics, Howard County, Md., schools. Credit: Courtesy of JOHN SANGIOVANNI

With virtual instruction, teachers said lessons often took longer, and they were not able to progress through the whole curriculum as they would have in a typical year, said John SanGiovanni, coordinator of elementary mathematics for the school system, which serves nearly 60,000 students. About one-quarter of students qualify for free and reduced-price meals in the district, which is about one-third white, 25 percent Black, 23 percent Asian and 13 percent Hispanic.

In a poll of elementary teachers in May, the district found about 20 percent felt their students did not have a good understanding of a core math topic — such as fractions for third graders or division for fifth graders — and would need considerable reteaching as the concepts came up next year. The district also removed some math topics that would be covered in a typical year, such as identifying symmetry and geometric patterns from the fourth grade standards, and work with coordinate planes in the fifth grade.

Still, SanGiovanni said, plans are in place to work those standards into the following grade’s content as needed, with an emphasis in the fall on moving forward.

“We want to start out where an on-grade-level curriculum would be and then backfill as needs arise,” SanGiovanni said. “We want to be careful not to test, test, test, diagnose, diagnose, diagnose kids and try to fix everything about them. Kids are coming to us with strengths. They have learned things this year. We want to find those and build on that.”

“Students are always learning, and they have always had different knowledge coming into the classroom — that isn’t going to be different,” said Beth Kobett, an education professor at Stevenson University with a specialty in math instruction. Credit: Courtesy of TIM KOBETT

This strengths-based approach is the best way to tackle math support this year, said Beth Kobett, a professor of education at Stevenson University in Maryland who focuses on math instruction. Emphasizing deficits and what students are lacking can start a cascade of problems and jeopardizes their learning in the future, she said. Teachers may end up lowering their expectations for students, and students can develop self-defeating attitudes about their math abilities.

“If we go in with fear, we’re going to scare them and ourselves,” said Kobett.  

Kids will need time to settle in before being assessed, Kobett said, suggesting teachers provide rich experiences with math where students can see connections. “Focus on doing some work together collaboratively. Students are going to be so excited to see one another that we need to capitalize on this joy.”

Related: Confused by your kid’s math homework? Here’s how it all adds up

It’s also important not to frame the past year as a time of learning loss, Kobett said. She suggested having children share what they did at home this past year, such as using math when baking or gardening with their grandparents.

 “Students are always learning, and they have always had different knowledge coming into the classroom — that isn’t going to be different,” Kobett said. “We just need to take a little bit more time to celebrate what they do know, before we launch into fixing everything. I don’t want to have a fix-it mindset.”

Summer Appler, an elementary school teacher in the Howard County district for 13 years and now a math specialist at Longfellow Elementary, recognizes students may need a “grace period” to get acclimated to being back in person. Still, she will be eager to see what they know. Appler said it was apparent that online instruction was not the best structure for some kids, who left their cameras off or did not participate in the lessons, and she will be watching for those who missed out.

In some classrooms, such as Kathy Neumann’s in Howard County, Md., third graders use base 10 blocks as they learn to add and subtract multi-digit numbers. Experts say schools should not focus on students’ deficits when they return to in-person learning, because that could reinforce self-defeating attitudes. Credit: Courtesy of KATHY NEUMANN

To get a snapshot, Appler said this fall she will work with teachers in the classroom to use “first-week tasks,” developed and recommended by the county math office, to assess students’ knowledge of standards such as addition, subtraction and measurement. For example, one task might ask the students how a scientist could figure the difference in weight between a giraffe and an elephant at a zoo. The idea is to get kids engaged in an activity that involves a real-life problem, while she observes how they solve it rather than stepping in to help.

“It’s not presented as a test. They are not circling the best answer on page after page,” she said. “They are able to talk, too — that’s a big thing.  We allow them time to run an idea past a partner to see what they are thinking.”

Though virtual learning has been far from ideal, some students have done well — and become very adept with technology, Appler said. Plus, the online platforms enabled teachers to watch students complete problems in real time and to individualize instruction. “We want to make sure that we don’t take it away completely,” Appler said of working on computers. “That has been their comfort, you know, so we have to do a good transition.”

Related: From a former teacher, four ways to take the drama out of math class

Kobett, the education professor, said math interventions can include working with small groups of students who have different abilities. Those groups can also be given a preview of the next topic, such as learning about decimals by doing an activity on a number line, to boost their confidence moving forward.

Beth Kobett, professor of education, Stevenson University. Credit: Courtesy of KELLY HECK PHOTOGRAP

“It’s going to need to be really strategic,” Kobett said, particularly in avoiding the tendency to group students by ability in separate tracks. She said districts should look at standards that are  most important — for example, understanding how place value works in multiplication in third grade — and go deep with the entire class.

“We really want to make sure that we’re not rushing to get them to the end, but actually spending the time developing that understanding of multiplication, because that’s going to feed into everything in the later grades,” she said.

Getting all students to progress is particularly critical, because math is “uniquely sequential and hierarchical,” said Douglas Clements, a professor of education at the University of Denver and a researcher in early math instruction. “With math, any little bit of learning loss you suffer tends to reverberate,” he said. “It’s really important we find out what level kids are at and address those learning losses.”

Clements advocates for a developmental approach that emphasizes understanding over rote memorization. “Math should make sense,” he said. “We really believe you have to build up from the assets of the child. That’s the only equitable approach.” When teachers sit down with young kids informally in small groups to play and talk with them, about shapes for instance, it can help guide instruction.

“When parents get involved, it just sends a positive message to students about the value of math in their family’s life.”

Sorsha Mulroe, math support teacher for Howard County, Maryland, schools

For kids falling behind, even a few extra minutes of math support in small groups can be helpful. Instruction shouldn’t stay at a slower pace than for others, but rather be carefully planned to progressively move students toward at least the average class level and allow them to catch up, Clements said. “Even if there is differentiation, but we don’t give the kids extra time and extra resources, they will stay at a parallel track, still further behind,” he said.

Howard County will use its math coaches more in elementary schools to help teachers make sense of student data and to customize lessons quickly, SanGiovanni said. And, rather than pulling kids out for intervention, the district will ensure that small group instruction happens within the classroom.

 “The best place to learn math is in math class for each and every student, no matter what their needs are,” said SanGiovanni. “We don’t want to isolate students. Period.”

Related: Kids are failing algebra. The solution? Slow down.

Just as schools have reading specialists, the district has added new math specialists — like Appler — to be in place by the start of school in the fall to provide co-teaching, intervention, monitoring and assessment of students.  The hope is to demonstrate their value and add support to grow the number of these positions in the future. Also, it is planning professional development to help teachers identify gaps in learning and understand curriculum in the grade above and below.

Going into the fall, SanGiovanni said the district is examining the curriculum to find efficiencies. That might mean, for instance, that second graders may not do a unit on time and money, with teachers instead reinforcing solid skills in addition and subtraction, he said.

“If we go in with fear, we’re going to scare them and ourselves.”

Beth Kobett, professor at Stevenson University

On top of making the most of the class time, Howard County plans to offer in-person tutoring programs before or after school — or even on Saturday mornings or evenings. They will likely be short-term, no more than a month or two, to address certain skills for groups of no more than six students.

“We’re looking at getting students tutoring access for things that they need, and then getting them back out,” said SanGiovanni, noting that exit plans will be needed. “We don’t want students to spin their wheels or be in intervention settings all year long.”

The district may involve families or, perhaps, offer some virtual sessions to get the most participation. In the summer of 2020, Sorsha Mulroe, a math support teacher in the district, ran a small, five-week virtual tutoring program for rising third graders who were identified by teachers and through test scores as needing extra help. Once a week, for at least an hour in the late afternoon or evening, students met online for support, and their parents were emailed additional independent practice work to do with them.

“When parents get involved, it just sends a positive message to students about the value of math in their family’s life,” said Mulroe, who recruited parents with personal phone calls and found the students’ confidence grew throughout the process. “It’s a win-win, because now the child has two teachers — they have a teacher at school, and they have a teacher at home who supports them.”

Stephanie Martin of Columbia, Md., says her children Evan, 6, a rising first grader, and Peighton, 8, a rising third grader, are on track with their math skills, thanks in part to a six-week summer school enrichment program offered by the district to help with the adjustment to in-school, full-day instruction in the fall. Credit: Courtesy of STEPHANIE MARTIN

Stephanie Martin of Columbia, Maryland, the mother of Peighton, a rising third grader, and Evan, a rising first grader, said she enjoyed the virtual family math nights offered by her children’s elementary school during the 2020-21 school year. The two children did well with remote instruction, Martin said. But they also took advantage of an in-person summer school enrichment program sponsored by the district, which mixed academic programs like math and reading with other activities, like yoga.

Martin said she’s pleased that Evan is talking about math and making connections outside the classroom, while Peighton is getting a preview of multiplication.

“It will give her a good foundation, so it’s not like completely new,” said Martin, who says her kids have smiles on their faces every day when she picks them up. “The learning is being catered to them in a way that they understand, and it’s enjoyable.”

Plus, the summer program offered a welcome taste of typical school for Evan, who learned how to introduce himself, raise his hand and wait his turn, said Martin. When his school returned to some in-person learning in the spring, Evan “was thoroughly confused not seeing [his teacher] in the screen. It took a minute to recognize she was a real person.”

Connecting with students, particularly this fall, will involve attention to the social-emotional aspects of learning, added SanGiovanni. Students in math class today don’t just copy how the teacher solves a problem, but rather are asked to explore different ways to arrive at an answer and explain their reasoning. That requires confidence that teachers will need to nurture coming off a year when students had so many different learning experiences at home.

“Students’ identity in math can be really fragile, without a pandemic in the background,” SanGiovanni said. “So, we really want to continue our efforts to build students’ positive identity … and also develop their agencies and beliefs that they can do math. We are teaching more than math next year, and really every year.”

This story about math was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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