During my career of more than 35 years in education, I have learned that content knowledge and instructional practice are two important elements that make teachers and their students successful. Teachers must first master the subject they are teaching, and then explore innovative ways to transfer that knowledge to each of their students. To enhance their teaching skills, teachers must have the ability to determine the current level of understanding of both individual students and the class as a whole in mastering a concept. Educators must then be confident in modifying their teaching approach mid-lesson if they determine students are falling behind.
Many tools let educators monitor student understanding, but few can help teachers take command of their classrooms. Often, such command comes with experience. However, administrators and curriculum coordinators need ways to expedite that process and to help new teachers build confidence faster while incorporating best practices learned from senior teachers.
After hosting a conference at our school in 2007, we learned about a program from Texas Instruments, called TI MathForward, which combines improved instructional practices with technology, curriculum enrichment and continuous formative assessment in a way that has proven to increase student understanding and improve teacher’s instructional practice as well. As a result, our high school, General Douglas MacArthur High School in Levittown, New York, introduced this new program into some of our mathematics classes with the hopes of increasing student achievement and rejuvenating teacher engagement.
Levittown Public Schools is a district located in a suburban community of about 53,000 people on Long Island. The district, which has a student population of approximately 8,000, is comprised primarily of middle-income families. Relative to other districts in the state, our mathematics scores are above average. And unlike some other TI MathForward implementations, at MacArthur High School, our students were not failing mathematics. However, we knew that we could still increase achievement and more importantly, student engagement, with the right tools.
Our mathematics department is a group of dynamic, hard working teachers. TI MathForward promised to provide teachers with additional tools to promote student achievement and to engage students more in the classroom. The program also offered the opportunity to increase student interest in taking more advanced mathematics courses, and to help students from all performance levels obtain a deeper understanding of mathematics concepts.
Five teachers, all of whom already taught double block mathematics courses, were selected to participate in the program. Approximately 100 students were randomly selected from our school to participate in the program.
The TI MathForward program complimented our block scheduling and brought new instructional elements into our classrooms. The program enriched existing curriculum while aligning it more tightly with state standards. Teachers received on-site training to improve their teaching techniques and effectiveness, as well as hands-on support and in-classroom coaching.
TI MathForward also made effective use of technology in the classroom. Teachers were trained to use the TI-Navigator system and the TI-84+ graphing calculators to increase students’ understanding of mathematical concepts. The technology enabled teachers to instantly assess the current level of understanding of all students and to identify topics students needed more help on.
Teachers also were trained to effectively use the longer class periods. For example, teachers decided to teach new concepts in each of the two periods of the double block, rather than teach both concepts in the first period and use the second period for reinforcement. This continual change in activities throughout the extended class period served to increase student interest and engagement while also enhancing student understanding.
Formative assessment proved to be a key component of the program, acting as a Rosetta stone to decode student understanding in real-time. Teachers were trained to administer formative and summative assessments at the beginning and end of each unit of study, to analyze the data, and to make data-driven instructional decisions based on the learning needs of our students. Teachers used the TI-Navigator learning system and TI-84+ graphing calculators, which enabled them to capture snapshots of students understanding. Once teachers were able to see where students were having difficulty, they were better equipped to provide appropriate instruction to improve students’ understanding of the concepts.
The program also improved teachers’ inquiry techniques, which led to more thought provoking questions and more in-depth class responses. The rich classroom discussions also served to deepen student understanding. For example, when some students deliver the wrong answer, the classroom discussion might focus on how the students arrived at that answer. This dialog is a critical learning component in the TI MathForward classrooms. Discussions of mathematics concepts became more dynamic, and teachers were now honing in on inquiries that explored what went wrong in solving problems along with a discussion of what went right. In addition to unveiling students’ misconceptions, these discussions are important because when students obtain the correct answer, it may not mean that they fully understood why that answer was right or how to avoid common mistakes in the future.
The transformation of both teachers and students proved amazing. Our principal and assistant superintendant observed these classes throughout the year, and both were impressed with the level of student engagement in the classrooms and the variety of instructional activities that occurred during the double periods. Each class had become a tight-knit learning community. When everyone answered correctly, the classes would explode in cheers. When students answered incorrectly, everyone would work together to find out where their classmates went wrong and how they could make sure to get the right answer on the next problem.
Since answers are sent anonymously through the Navigator system, all students felt comfortable to participate in class discussions regardless of whether their answer was right or wrong. Sometimes a student who originally had the wrong answer could see why their answer was wrong and would then be able to explain how the question should have been answered.
The class period would fly by, as students became caught up in exploring mathematics as a team. The extra time afforded by a double block mathematics class became a boon rather than a burden. While changes in student engagement were clearly evident, the real proof of the effectiveness of the program was in the testing results.
Final grades and scores on the district-wide final examinations of students not in the program were compared to students in the TI MathForward program. For 2007-2008, our ninth grade TI MathForward students outperformed comparison students not enrolled in the program on both their final examination and their course grades.
Still, outcomes are not only about scores. It is also about the attitudes of both our teachers and our students. Students realized that mathematics was exploration, discovery, and active learning. And, they drew together to work as a team to analyze and solve complex problems. Teachers were provided the tools to make their classes more successful and effective and were proud of their accomplishments.
John Bifolco, principal of MacArthur HS, said: "The Math Forward Program has been nothing short of a success here at MacArthur High School. Our students have benefited from the extended instruction, and our teachers have been able to successfully integrate the strategies they have learned as a result of their consultations with TI staff developers."
Ann Davidian has worked at Levittown Public Schools for more than 35 years. She is currently the mathematics department head at General Douglas MacArthur High School and a T^3 National Instructor. She received the 2001 U.S. Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching.