The Achievement Gap and Middle School Math

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Aug 14 2011

First week of school

Well, it has been a long week!

I’m teaching four sections of Math 7 (it is nice to have only one course to plan for each day!). I also have a homeroom class that I see in the morning and for half an hour in the afternoon for “team time.”  The classes that had the asterisk listed last week did indeed have a large number of special ed students. However, no co-teacher showed up on Monday or Tuesday, and then on Wednesday most of the special ed students were switched into different classes….so I guess that’s that.

Overall, the students are great! There are a few troublemakers in each class, but even they seem to be learning stuff, which is good, and we’re working on their behavior. This week, we were working on absolute value and beginning our unit on adding and subtracting positive and negative numbers. To model addition, we used little plastic plus signs to represent 1 and little plastic minus signs to represent -1. So, the number 3 would look like “+++” and the number -5 would look like “- – - – - ” a positive 1 and a negative 1 add to zero, so any time you can pair up a + and – you can just remove them (since taking zero away has no effect on the sum). After you’ve done as much pairing and removing as possible, the answer is given by the remaining pieces (if we were adding +++ and – - – - -, then the pieces left at the end would be – -, so the answer is -2). Next week, we’ll formalize that process a little more clearly on paper and then work on converting subtraction problems into addition problems that can be solved this way.

We’ve had a strange schedule a few days this week since students have been taking diagnostic pre-tests for each of the four main academic subjects. The information we get from these will probably be quite useful, but it has caused quite a disruption this week. Students are given over two hours to sit silently and do 29 multiple-choice math questions….since it doesn’t take them nearly that long to answer so few questions, they just get to sit there silently for a long time once they are finished. After the test is over and it is time to start class, it is (understandably) hard to get them to sit still for an actual class at that point. This was further complicated on Thursday, since this was the day that all students got their textbooks, but the time that each of the classes was supposed to go got changed at the last minute, which also messed up the lunch schedule and the schedule of bathroom breaks….

The students at my school don’t actually get to make any choices all day. They are supposed to line up in a straight line and walk silently through the halls (we tell them which side of the hallway to walk on and where to stop). They are also assigned tables to sit at in the cafeteria. Bathroom breaks and locker breaks are scheduled by class. Students are scolded for stopping in the hallways between classes to talk to people.  This is an interesting contrast to my own experience in 7th grade. When I was in 7th grade, my school’s motto was something along the lines of “Freedom with Responsibility.” My current school’s motto is something along the lines of “all students will be promoted to high school on time.” I think the thinking is that the school would rather that students rebel by walking on the wrong side of the hallway or by wearing clothes that don’t fit the dress code rather than rebelling by selling drugs or joining gangs….

In other news, since the school didn’t make AYP for the second year in a row, students have the opportunity to transfer to a different school in the district. Actually, in all of the subcategories measured (based on race/ethnicity, ESL, special ed., free/reduced lunch, etc.) our school’s scores have been trending upward, but not fast enough to meet the increasing AYP bar. Even though our scores are actually relatively high (and trending upward), being one of the few schools in the district that is in the second year of not making AYP makes us seem to be failing in the eyes of many people (including parents). So far, a substantial number of students have transferred out.  In our district, the number of staff members a school is allocated depends on the school’s enrollment, so teachers are hired based on the projected enrollment for the year. Since the AYP results came out after these projections were made and thus before a large number of students transferred out, the school now has about 7 more staff members than we are actually entitled to (out of about 120 total). In about a week, once enrollment stabilizes, the school will have to figure out how to get rid of 7 staff members. Of course, by this point, students will have already been in classes for two weeks.

My understanding is that the school is under various funding and contractual obligations to have a certain number of TFA people teaching there, but I have no idea exactly how this will all play out. Either they get rid of some TFA people, or they get rid of other people (who have already been there for a while), which puts all of the TFA people in a really awkward position as first-year folks who would get to stay while others had to leave. We’ll see how that all plays out. There are likely teaching positions open at other district schools (all of our kids had to move somewhere), which is good, at least.

3 Responses

  1. Amanda

    Wow. You’re up against a lot, Zach. I hope the number of teachers fired equals the number of teachers hired in the area. That’s rough to not know if you’re going to have a job or not, and it’s hard on the kids who have to change classes and teachers, too.

    I’m glad to hear your students have been receptive so far! That’s a really great exercise to do to connect with visual learners. You’re a very creative mathematician, I’m sure you’ll be able to teach these kids a lot. :) Good luck!

  2. In Memphis many of the middle school have the same hallway procedures. I understand that they are in place to keep order and prevent fights but I do fear that all the silence they are required to keep is really harmful (we’ve had silent lunch for at least the first week). They are in middle school! They need to talk! The most important place for silence is the classroom, but because they can’t speak anywhere of course they talk when they walk in my room.

  3. Dan Mirus

    Welcome to the world of education. Flexibilty is a very important attribute. I used red and yellow chips for adding and subtracting…one red and one yellow equals a zero. I did a alot of the chips. Then I put addition problems on the board. I then put subtraction on another board. The problems were the same except the operation was different the second number was the opposite. ex. -2 + 3 = 1 the other was -2 – -3 = 1 Did several problems like that. Srudents would notice the answers were the same/ Then I asked the students what we could do to make the subtraction problem exactly like the addition problem. Thus we came up with the “change the sign and add” rule.
    Good luck with the students. I know you will do well. Get some rest on the weekends, because I know you are tired when you get home from school.

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Closing the achievement gap with middle school math

Metro Atlanta
Middle School

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