Math Coaching Program At Federal Hocking Empowers Students, Improves Test Scores

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Students who feel empowered and truly involved in their education are more confident, and that means they're ultimately better learners, says Jen Thompson.

Thompson is a coach at Amesville Elementary — not the athletic variety, though. She's in the classroom helping to organize math lessons as part of the Mathematics Coaching Program. Federal Hocking Local Schools are about halfway into the three-year program, which is implemented by Ohio State University.

The idea is to get students thinking through what they're doing in math and why, and how it is useful in their daily lives.

"Rich (math) problems have opportunities for lots of different ways to reach an answer," Thompson said, "and therefore are accessible to different types of learners."

Some kids just don't respond well to rote memorizations, she added, and although basic math facts are still a part of the curriculum, kids are able to approach those facts in ways best-suited to their learning styles.

Before the district began to participate in the program, results in the math portion of the Ohio Achievement Assessment were “stagnant or decreasing,” according to Mary Mitchell, principal of Coolville Elementary. That triggered a discussion, said Mitchell, about “what’s going on in math.”

Laurie Torrence is a math coach at the middle and high schools.

"We started by taking a really good look at the scores," said Laurie Torrence, Thompson's counterpart at the middle and high schools. "We realized that students were doing really poorly on the short-answer and extended response questions. These are the questions that are worth two and four points as opposed to the multiple choice questions, which are only worth one point each."

But while administrators understood the significance of standardized test scores, they were largely reluctant to teach to the test.

“That's not who we are,” Mitchell said, “We thought it was very important to promote higher order thinking skills.”

Mitchell observed a lot of teaching from textbooks in classrooms, which does not encourage higher level thinking skills, she said. She and a committee began to think along the lines of professional development. They knew they didn't want people coming in from the outside for a "one-shot deal."

"We wanted something embedded," Mitchell noted, "Something that would have lasting power."

State testing is changing, too, Mitchell said. The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARRC) will require more sophisticated thinking skills.

"We discovered the MCP project, and it really seemed to align with what we believe," said Mitchell. "That is, allowing the students to discover their learning."

According to Mitchell, analysis of the test scores shows that there has been improvement for Federal Hocking, not just in mathematics but across the board.

This past fall in the OAA, 38 eighth grade students in the district were proficient or above, compared to 48 in January. More remarkably, though, the number of students in the 'limited' category — well below proficient —dropped from 15 to 6. The total number of students in the district below proficient — in the basic or limited categories — dropped from 40 to 21 in the course of the five months between tests.

The school district is currently looking at ways it can continue the program after the three years are up. It's funded through a grant, and Supt. George Wood said that that money will potentially be available next year to hire full time coaches for the following year.

Having coaches in the classroom with teachers is an integral part of the program, particularly for elementary school teachers, who didn't elect to teach math.

"They chose to teach children," said Thompson, adding that teachers are already concerned about what things will be like when the program is over.

"It's why the kids don't hate math," said Thompson.