YOU CAN’T TEACH WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW
The NY State math achievement results were in. The percentage of students who passed in grades 3 through 6 ranged from 35% to 46%. The 7th and 8th grades passing rates were 55% and 58%. We were all terribly disappointed—students, parents, teachers and school leaders. In the run up to the tests, we had given students pre-tests and provided extra help sessions and extended school day programs based on the data; we had purchased new math instructional materials; we even threw pizza parties celebrating good attendance at extra help sessions. Where did we go wrong? What could we do now?
Some teachers blamed the students for not doing their homework and parents for not checking their child’s homework. Some parents blamed teachers who didn’t stay after school or tutor kids during their lunch time. They blamed school leaders for large class sizes.
I had a theory. As someone who had supervised student teachers, I knew that many, if not most k through 6 classroom teachers, had not taken a math course since high school. Was it possible that teachers who were responsible for teaching math content did not know enough math? As the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, I decided to check out my theory. I reviewed the teachers’ college transcripts in their personnel files. My theory was confirmed. Only 7 of the 84, or about 8%, of grades 3 through 6 classroom teachers had completed a college math course. However, did they know enough elementary school math content to satisfy the demands of their curriculum? I needed to validate my guiding principle: YOU CAN’T TEACH WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW.
As for the 7th and 8th grade teachers, most were math majors. About a third did not major in math, but had met the minimum math requirements to obtain their certification as teachers of math.
Next, I organized meetings with teachers of math at each grade level 3 through 8. The district math coordinator designed parallel student math assessments for each grade level which were based on the most current available student assessment. Teachers anonymously took their 27-question grade-level student assessment in the time allotted to students, filling in the answer on their Scranton sheet. Upon completing the test, each teacher ran their answer sheet through the Scranton machine for scoring, and kept their answer sheet. The machine tallied the results, which were then shared with each grade level group.
Here’s the 4th grade results of the 21 teachers who took the 27 question 4th grade student parallel assessment: 27 correct-2; 26 correct-4; 25 correct-3; 24 correct-3; 23 correct-5; 22 correct-2; 22 correct-1; 21 correct-1. As for the other grade levels, 3 through 6, the results were very similar. Ninety percent of the 7th and 8th grades teachers scored 27 out of 27; none scored less than 25 correct. My hypothesis was validated. I understand that this is not a scientific study. But it is compelling data. I want to repeat that the individual scores of the teachers were confidential. Only the individual teacher knew their own score.
As an outgrowth of this discovery, I hired a highly respected professor of mathematics education and provided our 3 through 8 teachers with 36 hours of math instruction with an emphasis on content. The consultant’s approach was one of inquiry, making sure that each teacher developed a deep understanding of the math concepts. The consultant used part of his time doing classroom demonstration lessons and pushing into the classroom and coaching the teacher.
As a result, the achievement scores jumped to an average of 75% passing over the next 3 years.