Saturday, February 23, 2013

An Idea for Improving Math Scores in our Elementary Schools

Catholic elementary schools tend to produce students with much stronger scores in language arts than mathematics. This is generally true in dioceses across the United States.

I have a theory why: More so than public schools--with detailed curricular specifications, a governing bureaucracy that supervises this curriculum and public testing that measures its progress-- Catholic schools are heavily dependent on the interests and talents of our individual teachers to create and deliver the curriculum. This independence, of course, is generally a source of strength for our schools, empowering our faculties with a sense of ownership that encourages a culture of creativity and innovation. 

But in the area of Math, this independence may be problematic. Most elementary teachers have more affinity for language arts than mathematics, and like any of us, we tend to place our energies into what we are good at doing. That doesn’t mean our teachers don’t “cover” what the curriculum requires. It does mean their passion and creativity lean more toward languages than math. And it probably means that the 9- year effect of this “lean” will result in math skills that lag in comparison. 

Short of adopting the public school model, I am pessimistic that new programs or other curricular interventions in our Catholic schools will yield substantially better math results. The issue isn’t one of technique, design, or time on task. Rather, it resides in the natural proclivities of our teachers. 

Sumner Academy, a small but highly regarded K-8 private school in Gallatin, TN ( has a simple solution: It departmentalizes disciplines all the way down to kindergarten. Each “unit” (K-2, 3-5, 6-8) has a math/science teacher, a language arts teacher and a third teacher. Kids stay in one classroom, but the teachers rotate to that classroom. 

Organizing this way allows the school to hire teachers with a genuine love and depth of understanding for math (and science) for each grade level unit, without adding any additional salary costs to the school.  The headmaster of Sumner Academy, Dr. Bill Hovenden, points out additional benefits:

  • There’s better vertical alignment of the K-8 curriculum since it’s a matter of coordinating just three people in each discipline.
  • Since a particular teacher teaches each kid for three years in their particular discipline, he or she begins the year knowing much more about his or her students’ strengths and weaknesses.
  • When a teacher is on maternity leave or out for an extended illness, the other two teachers in each unit can guide and support the substitute as the third member of the team. 

Most of the graduates from Sumner Academy attend our high school, so I see their test scores. The math scores are high. The model works. 

Because departmentalization at such a young age violates elementary school orthodoxy, I asked Dr. Hovenden if his kids seemed to have difficulty in adjusting to three teachers instead of one. He answers “no” rather emphatically. In fact, he argues that the trio of teachers can often provide more pastoral, loving support for a child than a single teacher because the teachers can talk as a team about each student, tackle issues together, and build longer term relationships with each student’s family. Students, families and teachers become very close to one another over the course of those three years. 

That's not speculation, he adds. They’ve been doing it this way for over twenty years.

1 comment:

Christian LeBlanc said...

"This independence...empowering our faculties with a sense of ownership that encourages a culture of creativity and innovation."

I just teach Catechism, not regular school, but this is completely true in my experience. Well said.