By Carl Roberts
Crystal Trimble’s 1st-grade classroom at Kathryn Winn Primary School could be in any small school district in Kentucky. Colorful, circular tables fill the room. A row of desktop computers are lined up in front of windows that look onto the school’s playground. An abacus and other math manipulatives sit within easy reach.
Yet, something is happening in Trimble’s classroom that is not happening in other classrooms throughout the state.
Trimble is one of 26 Carroll County School District teachers participating in a cutting-edge grant through the Kentucky Department of Education. The grant funds a partnership – which is called a Mathematics and Science Partnership – between the district and the University of Louisville. The partnership is in its second year in the county.
The program’s goal is to increase student achievement in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects by increasing collaboration between postsecondary institutions and K-12 teachers and administrators.
As far as partnerships go, few could be more unlikely. A major research university, U of L has more than 22,000 students and almost 7,000 staff members. Carroll County, on the other hand, has just 1,900 students attending one of the district’s four schools. Nevertheless, these two institutions have created a partnership that has the potential to shake up teacher professional development in the state.
To help implement the grant, Carroll County Superintendent Bill Hogan reached out to Jennifer Bay-Williams, a mathematics educator and scholar who is a professor and department chair at the university. To round out the team, Bay-Williams enlisted the help of Aaron Hill, a U of L mathematics professor, to lead a graduate-level mathematics course for the teachers and to serve as the pure-math expert for the group.
Hogan, Assistant Superintendent Doug Oak, Bay-Williams and Hill decided to gear their program around two major strengths of a small school district: focus and flexibility.
“Lots of grants end up going to large school districts and consortiums,” Hogan said. “However, what often happens is that the funds are spread an inch deep and a mile wide, to little effect. As a small district, however, our strength is that we can be an inch wide and a mile deep.”
Called All in for Algebra – or A2 for short – the project has three major components: a lesson study, an online graduate mathematics content course and a five-day summer institute.
Trimble and the 25 other participating teachers are engaged in this intense, two-year-long boot camp, designed to increase their mathematics content knowledge as well as their understanding of mathematics teaching strategies.
For the lesson study, one teacher teaches a lesson while the others observe. The teachers then meet after the class for a debrief. Finally, they all teach a similar lesson in their own classrooms, incorporating what they learned from the observation and discussion.
“The lesson study has been one of the most popular parts of All in for Algebra,” said Oak, who manages the initiative. “We often say that teachers teach in silos. If you are a teacher, you spend all day with students. You rarely get to see a colleague teach because you are always teaching.
“Even rarer is the opportunity for you to see a colleague outside of your building teach. With All in for Algebra, we are breaking teachers out of their silos.”
To help continue the lesson studies after the grant ends, all 26 of the teachers are being trained as lesson study facilitators.
“Many schools have tried lesson study (urban and rural) and can’t sustain it, and yet it is one of the few forms of teacher learning that has a lot of evidence that it impacts student learning,” said Bay-Williams.
U of L Graduate Classes
The second piece of the A2 grant is a graduate mathematics course taught by Hill.
“Since one of the goals of the grant is to increase teachers’ content knowledge, we thought it was critical for them to get that content knowledge in a real classroom setting,” Oak said.
Hill makes the short drive from U of L to Carrollton a few times each semester to conduct in-person classes. However, much of the coursework and class interaction takes place online.
A five-day summer institute brings the teachers and U of L professors together for an intense week of learning about mathematics content and teaching strategies.
All 26 of the teachers meet with Bay-Williams and Hill. Through a combination of whole-group and breakout sessions, the teachers interact with math teachers from all grade levels. In this way, they can see how their instruction is part of a tapestry of standards that runs from kindergarten through graduation.
“The week brought to light a lot of curriculum alignment issues and helped to truly identify the power math standards that will help our students grow,” said Jacklyn Fink, a third-year teacher at Richard B. Cartmell Elementary, referring to the 2016 summer institute. “It was interesting to find correlations between standards and also to see at which grade different skills are taught.”
Power math standards are part of the Kentucky Academic Standards for Mathematics that the teachers decide to emphasize based on student pre-assessments.
Fink’s fourth-grade classroom overlooks U.S. Highway 42, which runs past several steel mills, power plants and chemical plants that are strung along the Ohio River in Carroll County. In the future, many of her students will make the short commute from Carrollton to the high-wage, high-tech jobs that these factories provide.
Thanks in part to the A2 initiative, it looks like more of the district’s students are being prepared for those careers. After one year of the program, scores improved between the 2014-15 and 2015-16 Kentucky Performance Rating for Educational Progress (K-PREP) assessments:
- At Carroll County High School, 13.7 percent fewer students scored in the Novice band (the lowest) in 2015-16 than did the previous year on the Algebra II End-of-Course assessment.
- At Cartmell Elementary, the percentage of students who scored in the Novice band for mathematics decreased from 28.7 percent in 2014-15 to 19.1 percent in 2015-16.
A key piece of the A2 initiative is treating teachers like professionals, which means giving them the support that they need to do the job and also compensating them for the work that they do.
“Our society asks a lot out of teachers,” Oak said. “Teachers are people who care, and people who care go above and beyond to help others. Since this initiative asked our teachers to do even more than they were already doing, we knew we had to make it worth their while.”
For the first year of the online course and the summer institute, the teachers had the choice of six graduate credits from U of L or a $2,000 stipend. For their work as lesson study facilitators, the teachers received $800. Participating teachers have the same opportunities for compensation in the second year.
“We know it’s not about the money to them, but it sure doesn’t hurt,” Oak said.
Carroll County Middle School mathematics teacher Allison Beck said the support from the district and U of L made the difference in her classroom.
“U of L was a great support throughout the lesson study and the math class,” she said. “The district provided support through multiple avenues. I have been given the time to work with my math department as well as valuable resources. Doug Oak has always been there to help us out, whether that be giving us more time to work, supporting our journey through the lesson study, and making sure everything ran smoothly.”
Hogan said he believes the A2 initiative can work in any school district.
“There is tremendous power in focus, and any school district – but especially smaller districts – can take this and run with it,” he said. “We focused on our math teachers and gave them the support that they needed. In return, they helped our students reach new levels of achievement.”
Carl Roberts is a grant writer and director of public relations for the Carroll County School District.
MORE INFO …
Crystal Trimble firstname.lastname@example.org
Bill Hogan email@example.com
Jennifer Bay-Williams J.BayWilliams@louisville.edu
Aaron Hill Aaron.Hill@louisville.edu
Doug Oak firstname.lastname@example.org
Jacklyn Fink email@example.com
Allison Beck firstname.lastname@example.org