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Topic: [ncsm-members] Expecting the Best Yields Results in Massachusetts
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
[ncsm-members] Expecting the Best Yields Results in Massachusetts
Posted: Sep 3, 2013 2:40 PM
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From The New York Times, Monday, September 2,
2013. See
EDUCATION ISSUE --- This is a special issue
devoted to science and math education.

Expecting the Best Yields Results in Massachusetts

By Kenneth Chang

BRAINTREE, Mass. - Conventional wisdom and
popular perception hold that American students
are falling further and further behind in science
and math achievement. The statistics from this
state tell a different story.

If Massachusetts were a country, its eighth
graders would rank second in the world in
science, behind only Singapore, according to
Timss - the Trends in International Mathematics
and Science Study, which surveys knowledge and
skills of fourth and eighth graders around the
world. (The most recent version, in 2011, tested
more than 600,000 students in 63 nations.)

SPECIAL ISSUE. -- Learning what works. SEE
VIDEO -- Massachusetts: Math Capital?

From curriculum to technological advances to
experimentation -- a view of the state of science
and math education across the country.

Graphic: Results of the Trends in International
Mathematics and Science Study

Guesses and Hype Give Way to Data in Study of Education
(September 3, 2013)

Cognitive Science Meets Pre-Algebra
(September 3, 2013)

Chinese Educators Look to American Classrooms
(September 3, 2013)
Massachusetts eighth graders also did well in
mathematics, coming in sixth, behind Korea,
Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan. The
United States as a whole came in 10th in science
and 9th in math, with scores that were above the
international average.

Of course, Timss is only one test, and
achievement tests are incomplete indicators of
educational prowess. But behind Massachusetts'
raw numbers are two decades of sustained efforts
to lift science and mathematics education.
Educators and officials chose a course and held
to it, even when the early results were deeply

While Massachusetts has a richer and
better-educated population than most states, it
is not uniformly wealthy. The gains reflected
improvement across the state, including poorer

"I think we are a proof point of what's
possible," said Mitchell D. Chester, the state
education commissioner.

On a sunny day in May, fifth graders at Donald E.
Ross Elementary School here were gathered at an
outdoor gazebo, learning about fulcrums by using
a ruler set up like a seesaw and balancing
weights at both ends.

At South Middle School, seventh graders in a
science class worked in small groups to
brainstorm how a box of items - a plastic jar,
beaker, water, and a mix of sand, soil, clay and
pebbles - could help answer a question posed by
the teacher: How do sediments carried in water
get deposited? They devised small experiments and
wrote down their observations, and at the end of
class each group presented its findings.

None of the topics were novel, but they were
consistent in their hands-on approach, inviting
students to explore and explain. "Much more
hands-on than what we ever used to do," said
Dianne D. Rees, the district's science director.
"Hands-on as much as possible."

Braintree, a town of about 35,000 south of
Boston, is neither an inner-city area nor a
wealthy suburb. "We're sort of, we used to say, a
blue-collar area," said William Kendall, the
director of mathematics and technology for the
Braintree schools.

When Dr. Kendall arrived in 1973 as a math
teacher, the standard approach was talking at the
front of the classroom and writing on the

Some children learned well from lectures. Others
did not. "And it was O.K. those people don't get
it, because only we, the math elite, get it," Dr.
Kendall said.

Back then, one could graduate from high school
without ever taking algebra. "Then came ed
reform," Dr. Kendall said, "and now everybody had
to learn math."

Ambitious Goals

"Ed reform" was the Massachusetts Education
Reform Act of 1993, passed by a Democratic
Legislature and signed by a Republican governor,
William F. Weld.

The three core components were more money (mostly
to the urban schools), ambitious academic
standards and a high-stakes test that students
had to pass before collecting their high school
diplomas. All students were expected to learn
algebra before high school.

"It was a combination of carrots and sticks,"
said David P. Driscoll, deputy education
commissioner at the time.

Also noteworthy was what the reforms did not
include. Parents were not offered vouchers for
private schools. The state did not close poorly
performing schools, eliminate tenure for teachers
or add merit pay. The reforms did allow for some
charter schools, but not many.

Then the state, by and large, stayed the course.

The new achievement test, the Massachusetts
Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS for short),
was given to 10th graders for the first time in
1998. (The graduation requirement of obtaining an
acceptable score on the 10th-grade MCAS did not
take effect until 2003.)

The troubled urban schools performed terribly.

In the small city of Chelsea, which borders
Boston, almost 90 percent of the students come
from low-income families and most did not speak
English as their first language. On the first
MCAS, two-thirds of Chelsea 10th graders failed
math. The science scores were nearly as dismal.

Two years later, scores in the urban districts
showed only glacial improvement. A report from
the University of Massachusetts at Boston
concluded that the reforms were not delivering on
the promises.

Critics worried that when the use of MCAS as a
graduation requirement kicked in, thousands of
students would be deprived of their diplomas and
would drop out in despair. Dr. Driscoll, who was
elevated to education commissioner in 1998, kept
the MCAS.

"People were expecting it to go away," Robert D.
Gaudet, the lead UMass researcher, recalled in a
recent interview. "He held to his guns."

Officials did make adjustments. Students who fail
the MCAS can retake it several times until they
pass, and can still graduate if they otherwise
demonstrate they have learned the material.

Test scores have risen markedly. Last year, 54
percent of Chelsea 10th graders were proficient
or advanced on the math MCAS.

On tests administered by the federal Education
Department, Massachusetts, which had been above
average, rose to No. 1 among the 50 states in

Building Blocks

Two decades after Massachusetts passed its
education reform, there is still much
disagreement over what were the crucial
components to its success.

Some think it was the added money; others note
that successful countries operate schools at much
lower costs.

Some think high-stakes testing imposed
accountability on administrators, teachers and
students; others say that it merely added stress
and that the proliferation of tests takes away
too much time from learning.

Some think the standards gave clarity on what was
expected of teachers and students; others say
there is little correlation between well-written
standards and student performance.

Officials like Dr. Driscoll say all three components were essential.

Dr. Rees, the Braintree schools' science
director, said the standards helped make sure
that teachers across the state covered the same
subjects, laying the groundwork for subsequent

"There's a logic to that, a progression," she
said. "You start learning about solids in
kindergarten. In first grade, you learn about
solids and liquids, and then in second grade, you
start to learn about solids and liquids and

The MCAS has helped Braintree figure out what
works and what doesn't. Middle school students
were struggling with chemistry questions on the
eighth-grade MCAS. The district changed the order
of instruction, covering concrete science
concepts in sixth grade and moving some chemistry
topics to seventh. "And it worked," Dr. Rees
said. "They're doing better on their chemistry."

Still, Massachusetts officials admit they have more to do.

While scores have improved across the board, the
gap between the highest achievers and the lowest
- notably blacks, Hispanics and special education
students - has persisted.

Seeing Results

At East Middle School, the elixir is Kristen
Walsh, who teaches math to sixth, seventh and
eighth graders with so-called special needs, a
potpourri of learning disabilities that include
dyslexia and autism. On this day she was
introducing a lesson on variables and linear
equations with a problem involving gym

She explained the usual math concepts of
beginning algebra - the slope of a line
indicating the rate of change, the y intercept
where the line intersects the y axis. Where she
lingered was less the math concepts but the words
used in the word problem, repeatedly checking
that the students understood that the "start-up
fee" of one health club was the same thing as the
membership fee at another.

In essence, she was teaching how to interpret a
math problem as much as how to solve it.

Dr. Kendall says teachers now laugh when he tells
them that it was once possible to graduate from
Braintree High School without ever taking
algebra. "You can't get out of eighth grade
without knowing Algebra I now," he said. "We're
teaching it to everybody, and everybody is having

The first new math standards in Massachusetts, in
the 1990s, echoed the "constructivist" pedagogy
then in vogue. Students would construct their
knowledge through trial and error, resulting in a
deeper understanding.

But many parents rebelled, complaining that their
children never mastered basic skills. The state
officials in charge of the next revision wanted a
back-to-basics curriculum. But Dr. Kendall and
others argued that that old approach had already

The "math wars" erupted at the turn of the
millennium, culminating in a sort of détente -
constructivism was purged, but the new
Massachusetts standards did not prescribe a new
approach. They stated what students were to
learn, but not how teachers were to teach. "What
came out of it ended up being a good document,
because it contained no pedagogy," Dr. Kendall

That allowed teachers like Ms. Walsh to devise and improve.

Take the multiplication table. The traditional
approach was to memorize it in order. A strict
constructivist would have children figure it out
by playing with sticks and other so-called

Braintree combines those approaches, with the
teachers guiding the learning in a particular
"Now research shows when you're teaching
multiplication facts, you should start with the
2s, go to the 10s, go to the 5s, do the 4, the 8,
don't hit 0, because the idea of multiplying 0 by
0 is complicated, until they've got a foundation
in multiplication," Dr. Kendall said. "Do 0 and 1
in about the middle, and save 7 and 3 until the
end, because those are the really hard ones."

He added, "We're helping them construct their own
knowledge in a way that is successful."

Abby Federico, one of Ms. Walsh's special-needs
students, said her mother told her the middle
school math curriculum was much more advanced
than when she was in school. "She was like, 'I
learned this stuff in high school,' " Abby said.

Dr. Kendall said that special needs students in
Braintree used to routinely fail the math MCAS.
Now those in Ms. Walsh's class often get

"It's pretty easy in my opinion, because Ms.
Walsh usually teaches us a lot of methods to use
in math to make it seem easier," Abby said,
adding that she might even choose a career that
requires math skills.

"Math is pretty nice," she said.
A version of this article appears in print on
September 3, 2013, on page D1 of the New York
edition with the headline: One State Had a Plan
And Saw It Through.
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244

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