A low hum courses through the room as 50 Massachusetts educators discuss their efforts to support mathematics learning for struggling students. Talk turns to how even a small descriptive phrase, like active boy, can cause confusion when not everyone understands it the same way.
Marta Lunden, a teacher from Malden, recalls her own experience as a parent. "'Active boy'—that was my son," she says. "Every parent-teacher conference, that's what I heard. I always asked, 'What does that mean?'"
Lunden is part of the Math Support Specialists (MSS) network, a group of educators convened by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE). With help from EDC's Fred Gross and Susan Janssen, the network is digging into some fundamental questions about opportunity, equity, and expectations for all students. The ultimate goal? Empower participants to have similar conversations at the school level, and help improve the outcomes for students who struggle with math.
"A single term like active or low-achieving can carry stereotypes, undermining the support that educators are trying to give," says Gross. "This work is a chance to do two things: get conversation on the table and talk about what we mean."
Practicing difficult conversations
It is easy for this mix of math teachers, special education teachers, and administrators to agree that helping students with learning disabilities is important. But change requires more than good intentions, and conversations at the district level do not always filter down to the classroom. Gross and Janssen are trying to facilitate that change, leading conversations about mathematics and students with disabilities that can be continued at the district and classroom levels.
For the next few hours, Gross leads participants in a discussion on the importance of using descriptive, judgment-free language when discussing students' difficulties. He takes aim at the word low, which is often used by teachers to describe a struggling student. "Low to one person might not be low to someone else," he says. "I've got an image of what it is. But what does it mean?"
In the afternoon, Janssen explores the idea of mathematical rigor—a term often bandied about by educators, but seldom defined. "If we are saying that all students, even our struggling students, must have a rigorous math experience, do we all mean the same thing by that?" she wonders. She believes it is important to help colleagues within schools build a shared vision of rigor, and then use this vision to set high expectations for all students.
To help the group understand what rigor could look like, Janssen delved into the new Common Core State Standards for mathematics, which Massachusetts is currently rolling out. "We're thinking that the conversations that schools have internally about what rigor means is going to be at least as important as actually having the definition," she explains.
Having an impact
The MSS stands to benefit thousands of students across the state who struggle in mathematics. And the conversations being facilitated by EDC are having an impact: since participating in these meetings, nine districts have received extra funding from DESE to lead similar conversations with school leadership teams about how to improve their services for students with disabilities. Also, more collaboration between math and special education teachers is beginning to occur.
Tamisha Thomson knows what it is like to balance the needs of individual students in one hand and the needs of an entire district in the other. A math liaison in Worcester, Thomson is responsible for rewriting the district's K–12 math curricula. "A lot of students who struggle in math tend to be students who have special needs," she says. "I think there is a disconnect between the supports we provide to students and getting them to the rigorous content that is important for them to get."
Thomson values the opportunity to work with colleagues who are similarly concerned about students who struggle with math, whether they approach the issue from a special education, classroom, or policy standpoint.
"We tend to make judgments in the statements that we make about students," she adds. "We say 'this student is low-achieving,' but we don’t really talk about what this means for this particular kid. We tend to see groups of students rather than seeing individual students. And that's a mindset, I think, that needs to be worked on."
Originally published on July 23, 2012