Success adds up for D.C. schools' math program

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 8, 2010

It was fractions week in Camille Jackson's third-grade math class at Noyes Education Campus. To kick off a mid-morning lesson last month, she asked her 18 students to look not at the board or at materials on their desks, but under their chairs.

Taped to the bottom of each was a card with the last name of a teacher at the Northeast Washington school. The students' task: Pick out the vowels and determine what fraction of the whole name they represent.

"What's the fraction of vowels in Mr. Waldstein's name?"

"Three-ninths," said one boy.

"Ms. Tugman?"

"Two-sixths?" a girl ventured.

"Very good. You guys are doing an awesome job!" Jackson said.

Her approach is part of a math curriculum that is yielding promising results for D.C. public school children. The road to mastery no longer runs strictly through rote memorization and drilling, District educators say. It requires deeper conceptual understanding.

They say they think the shift is paying off. December results for the National Assessment of Educational Progress, given to fourth- and eighth-graders every two years, showed that the District was the only one of 11 urban school systems tested that made significant gains in math in 2007 and 2009. Since 2003, its fourth-grade math scores have grown at triple the national rate and about double that of all large cities. Reading scores will be released this year.

Although the District's public schools remain well behind high-achieving suburban systems in Montgomery and Fairfax counties, officials consider the progress a validation of changes they've made in math instruction over the past several years.

"The whole thrust has changed in how we engage children," said Marguerite Nelson, elementary math curriculum specialist for D.C. public schools.

The shift is a legacy of Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's predecessor, Superintendent Clifford B. Janey, who imported more rigorous math and reading standards to the District from Massachusetts in 2005, along with the DC-CAS, an annual standardized test that resembles the NAEP. That year, he also introduced Everyday Mathematics, a K-6 curriculum developed in the 1990s by the University of Chicago. It emphasizes problem solving rooted in the students' world and frequent practice of math skills through games.

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