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What We Know About Richmond Schools' Proposed Math Curriculum

Richmond Public Schools is preparing to adopt new K-8 math and reading curricula. Administrators say they want to establish consistency in how these topics are taught across grade levels throughout the district. They hope to adopt curricula from EL Education and Eureka Math, developed by Great Minds, for the upcoming school year.
Richmond elementary teachers attend an all-day training session from Eureka Math during a professional development day in January 2020. (Photo: Megan Pauly/ VPM News)

Richmond Public Schools is preparing to adopt new K-8 math and reading curricula. Administrators say they want to establish consistency in how these topics are taught across grade levels throughout the district. They hope to adopt curricula from EL Education and Eureka Math, developed by Great Minds, for the upcoming school year.

But the coronavirus has presented new challenges, and some teachers and school board members want the district to hit the pause button on curricula adoption because of the pandemic.

They’ll have that chance Monday, June 1, when they are expected to vote on adopting new curricula for the year. Although the budget the school board adopted last week includes funding for new materials and training, board member Scott Barlow introduced an amendment that would reallocate the funds for COVID-19 if they fail to approve new curricula.

I. Why Now?

Tracy Epp, chief academic officer for Richmond Public Schools, said the district heard from teachers and families about this issue while charting out what the next five years might look like during public outreach for the district’s strategic plan. The district estimated the five-year cost for new materials at $5.4 million.

“One of the themes we heard loud and clear was that our teachers were craving stronger instructional resources,” Epp said. “And our students were craving instruction and schoolwork that was much more engaging and challenging to them.”

When Epp got to Richmond in mid-2018, she said the district had had four different curriculum directors over the previous five years. She couldn’t find evidence of any formal middle school math curriculum the district had adopted previously, and couldn’t confirm the date of a past middle school reading curriculum adoption, either.

“Teachers are really just operating on their own trying to find materials,” Epp said. “It creates frustration for teachers, it certainly creates mistrust from teachers because they feel like nothing is going to last. But most importantly, it harms our students, because there is just such disconnectedness in what they're learning and what they're experiencing.”

The administration wanted to create consistency in instructional materials across grade levels, at least in K-8. Chelsie Smith teaches 4th grade math at Miles Jones Elementary School in Richmond. She sees the value of a uniform curriculum, especially for kids who move around a lot due to housing instability.

“It's definitely, I think, hard for students to come in from a different school and they have a way of solving a problem or a strategy that they use, and then coming to a new school and having to learn a whole new strategy,” Smith said. “And even just grade level to grade level can be challenging.”

People sitting in library
Richmond elementary school teachers attended an in-person Eureka Math training in January (Photo: Megan Pauly/ VPM News)

But many teachers, like Carmen Brown, still feel the need to customize some lessons at least a little bit. Brown teaches 5th grade at Blackwell Elementary. “I have to put myself in there somewhere and I'm a big creative person,” Brown said. “I thrive off my creativity.”

Research indicates that the majority of teachers across the country don’t regularly use standardized curricula materials. Sometimes that’s because they don’t have access to the material. And sometimes they’re turning to other places for inspiration, like social media site Pinterest, or platforms like Teachers Pay Teachers, where teachers review and purchase materials created by other educators.

“There's no quality control other than teachers posting Yelp-style ratings on these websites,” said Morgan Polikoff, associate professor of education at the University of Southern California who studies curriculum implementation. “I just don't think that that's a recipe for a high-quality coherent curriculum.”

As to how much creativity he thinks is OK, according to research?

“That is a million-dollar question,” Polikoff said. “I'm writing a book about this topic as we speak. This is the chapter that currently has me stuck...but if you think that standards are a good thing then it does not at all make sense for three million teachers to go out and create their own curriculum materials.”

At the same time, it’s hard to measure how much a standardized curriculum is responsible for student growth. That’s because it’s really hard to study. One reason why that is, Polikoff said, is the varying degree to which teachers use any given material.

An important part of any curriculum adoption is teacher training. That’s one reason some are hesitant about changing the curriculum now, during a pandemic. Katina Harris is president of the Richmond Education Association, and a middle school teacher in RPS. “Why can’t it be delayed?” Harris said. “That’s what we’re asking, not necessarily to get rid of it altogether.”

The district says they have a plan for rolling out the new material with virtual professional development. The sooner it’s adopted, officials say, the sooner they can start that training. They hope that will give teachers enough time to feel comfortable with the new material before school resumes in the fall.

II. Why Eureka Math?

While it's normally aligned with Common Core, a set of national standards embraced by the Obama administration, Great Minds is tailoring its program to Virginia's standards, making it slightly different from its content elsewhere. Virginia is one of only a few states in the country that chose not to adopt Common Core. Eureka Math is one of the most widely used curricula in the U.S.,  according to research by RAND.

 

 

In many ways, Eureka Math’s approach is a departure from what parents and teachers have been used to. The district started piloting it in eight elementary schools during the 2018-2019 academic year. According to the school district, this year the pilot has grown to all elementary schools except three, and all middle schools at the sixth-grade level.

Eureka points to gains in student achievement in districts that have adopted its math curriculum over the last several years, including DC Public Schools. RPS has also pointed to promising gains in schools that piloted the Eureka material during the last complete school year, and mid-year gains in schools earlier this year before schools closed.

The most dramatic gains were at Westover Hills Elementary School in Richmond, where state math SOL scores jumped from 23 percent math proficiency for 3rd grade in 2017-2018 to 64 percent math proficiency in 2018-2019. There was a similar trend for 5th grade math, with a 2017-2018 math proficiency of 21 percent rising to 67 percent in 2018-2019.

Woman stands at dry erase board
Westover Hills Elementary principal Allison El-Koubi is a proponent of Eureka Math, after the school piloted it last school year. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

“I think that it [Eureka Math] had a significant impact,” said Allison El-Koubi, principal at Westover Hills Elementary. “I think that it really helped kids to think about math in ways that help them understand it.”

However, just the year before, scores dipped dramatically. Third-grade math proficiency went from 41 percent in 2016-2017 to 23 percent in 2017-2018, and from 47 percent at the 5th-grade level in 2016-2017 to 21 percent in 2017-2018. El-Koubi’s first year at Westover Hills was in 2018-2019, so she couldn’t speak to the drop in scores the year earlier. However, she recounted a number of factors she believes contributed to scores increasing last year.

“I think there were some culture improvements in the school, I think there were some positivity changes,” El-Koubi said. “I think we kind of zeroed in on what students needed to really kind of target some of our interventions. And I do believe that deeper conceptual understanding [of math concepts] played a huge part in that.”

Measuring the impact curriculum has on student achievement is difficult, and researchers say it’s nearly impossible to isolate the sole effect of curriculum material. There was also a rocky rollout of the Eureka Math pilot in RPS, and some teachers complained that they didn’t receive material and training early enough in the school year to incorporate it into their instruction. Aligning the material to Virginia’s standards has posed another challenge.

Public comment about the curricula has been mixed, but with resounding positivity from the Westover Hills Elementary community during the last school board meeting. Kelly Cannon, whose son, Ben, is in kindergarten at Westover Hills Elementary, said she likes the use of visual models like number bonds. She thinks the approach is helping him understand math in a way that she wasn’t taught as a kid.

After schools closed, Cannon ordered a Eureka teacher manual to help her son continue learning this “new math” at home during the pandemic. “He had learned in class about number bonds, and he said, ‘This is the whole number and then there are two parts,’” Cannon said. “So the whole number is six, the two parts could be two and four, or the two parts could be three and three or five and one.”

The curriculum was founded on the idea that a conceptual understanding of math is crucial. It’s a new way of thinking about math for a lot of RPS teachers and parents. Mary Gresham has been helping her youngest daughter Arielle, a 2nd grader at J. L. Francis Elementary School, learn math at home during the pandemic.

“I'm teaching her the way that I know, and she's saying, ‘No Mommy, that's not what my teachers said,’” Gresham said.

Gresham remembers learning to carry the one when adding, and borrowing to subtract. “But they don't call it that any longer. They regroup, they draw these boxes on the paper,” Gresham said.

Jill Diniz is chief academic officer for mathematics at Great Minds, the developer of Eureka Math. The curriculum was founded on the idea that a conceptual understanding of math is crucial.  She says Eureka drew inspiration from the curriculum in other countries like Singapore, where students consistently score highly on an international math study, called TIMSS.

Diniz knows their approach is a far cry from what many people -- and school districts  -- have used in the past. She points to the experience of one district in Bethel, Washington they’ve worked with.

“And they almost laughed at us when they looked at the curriculum, and they actually sort of challenged us and said, I think this is developmentally inappropriate for students this young to be expected to talk about math in this way,” Diniz said. “And then they came back to us and said, ‘We can't believe we didn't think our kids were capable of this. Our eyes have been opened.’”

Eureka Math evolved out of EngageNY, which was developed as part of a 2012 contract between Great Minds and the New York Department of Education. New York used federal Race to the Top grant funds to develop the new curriculum. Diniz said that project was led by Nell McAnelly and Scott Baldridge from Louisiana State University.

Diniz said most Common Core-aligned curriculum materials use visual models in very early grades, but Eureka continues to use the same visual models across grade levels. She said strategies like the number bond can be used not only to help students learn addition and subtraction, but also multiplication.

paper with math problems
Richmond elementary school teachers learn about number bonds during an in-person Eureka Math training in January (Photo: Megan Pauly/ VPM News)

  

“Visual modeling plays a significant role in helping kids conceptualize it [math]. Math is so abstract, so understanding what's going on conceptually is very difficult. And so the visual model serves as an analogy,” said Dan Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. “For example, the number line is a very useful way of thinking about it and the number line is a spatial representation.”

Diniz said that there’s no “rote memorization” in Eureka Math, although the curriculum does incorporate what are called “sprints,” timed exercises designed to help build up students’ memories of basic math facts, what Eureka calls “fluency.”

Researchers like Daniel Ansari agree that a conceptual understanding of math is important. But Ansari, who runs the Numeral Cognition Laboratory at Western University in London, Ontario, said it’s not the only important factor when it comes to learning math.

“You can have multiple algorithms, but you still need to know how to solve a problem, not just what concept that problem represents,” Ansari said. He adds that memory and a student’s ability to quickly recall numbers as symbols also plays a major role in knowing how to solve more complicated problems.

“What our work and the work of other scientists in this field has shown is that those children who have a better understanding of number symbols early on tend to be the ones that do better in terms of their math learning,” Ansari said.

Monday night, these questions will be debated by the RPS school board, meeting over teleconference. The public can tune in through the district’s Facebook page at 6 p.m. Most public pushback has called into question the timing of the new curriculum rollout, but not necessarily the content of the math curriculum itself.

This reporting was made possible in part thanks to a fellowship from the Education Writers Association. As part of the fellowship, Megan Pauly is continuing to report on math curriculum in Richmond Public Schools, what research has to say about the role of curricula in student learning, and the science of how students learn math.

*Editor's Note: We've updated one paragraph to clarify that Virginia is getting its own version of Eureka Math to comply with state standards, instead of Common Core.