K-8 Math Progressions (formerly known as Intel Math)
Stephani Burton, who just started her fourth year as a pre-kindergarten teacher at John Winthrop Elementary School in Boston, decided during her first year on the job that she wanted an extra dose of professional development in mathematics. So she chose to hone her skills with a program called K-8 Math Progressions.
Burton was looking for a challenge. K-8 Math Progressions is an intense program designed to provide teachers in kindergarten through the eighth grade with a thorough and deep understanding of math. In Burton's district, it takes place during a five-to-eight-day stretch over the summer and an additional five to eight days during the school year.
80 Hours of Training
Altogether it amounts to 80 hours of training -- roughly the time it takes to walk 240 miles, watch four seasons of Lost, or in Burton’s case, make an entire collection of 70 to 80 pieces of jewelry. But instead of sitting in front of a TV, making jewelry or walking, she sat at a table and became a student once again.
Burton learned what it’s like to be in her students’ shoes, grappling with unfamiliar mathematical concepts. She learned how to solve math problems in various ways, not just one. And she learned how to apply that know-how to the capabilities of each student.
Burton, like most teachers who take K-8 Math Progressions, walked away from the 80-hour course knowing much more about math and how to teach it. Studies conducted by the San Francisco-based nonprofit WestEd show that teachers make notable strides in their knowledge from the beginning to the end of the course. The computational skills of teachers rise; their conceptual understanding of math gets stronger; and they feel better prepared to teach math when they go back to the classroom.
New Insights on Mathematics
K-8 Math Progressions, Burton said, helped her to be more thoughtful about many aspects of teaching math. The equals sign, for example, is typically presented to children as a symbol that simply points to the answer to a problem, but K-8 Math Progressions helped her realize that it’s really a question of balance, a concept that comes into play later on with algebraic thinking.
When Burton went back to her classroom she made the “equals” concept more tangible by using a balance. “When we put more on one side,” she said, “we had to make it equal on both sides,” so they would understand that the equals sign means “is the same as.”
K-8 Math Progressions is relatively new. Its creation stems from conversations that people at chip maker Intel Corporation have had over the years with the company’s education partners at the local, state and national levels. A common refrain, said Robert Richardson, formerly an education manager for Intel (and now director of member relations for CTEq), was the lamentable state of national math scores.
Moving the Dial on Math Achievement
Among students from developed countries, the United States ranks 25th out of 30 in math literacy. In addition, the most recent results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed no gains in math for the nation’s fourth graders and only modest gains for eighth graders.
Intel’s education partners were “scratching their heads,” Richardson said. “They were saying, ‘The dial is just not moving on math achievement. We are not any further ahead than we were, and the international community is moving ahead, and we’re not, so we need to do something about it.’ ”
Intel decided it could do its part by developing a teacher-training program, and in 2006 it began casting about for existing models. In the process it came upon the Vermont Math Initiative (VMI), a master’s program at the University of Vermont with a dual focus on leadership and content.
“We liked everything we saw about it,” Richardson said, “so we contracted with them to provide to us an 80-hour course culled from two of their master’s degree level courses, and we went from there.”
Intel adapted VMI's materials to create K-8 Math Progressions, which provides 80 hours of intense training to teachers in kindergarten through eighth grade. Ninety percent of the course is focused on content and 10 percent on instruction. Some teachers in Massachusetts and California were the first to take the course, which launched as a pilot in 2007. Now in its fifth year, K-8 Math Progressions has expanded to five other states – Arizona, New Mexico, Illinois, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Program Manager Aubrey Neihaus said that by the end of 2010 there should be a five-year tally of nearly 1,400 trained teachers.
The course, Neihaus noted, “is a little bit intimidating at the beginning, but the payoff at the end of those 80 hours is tremendous. It asks a lot of teachers and they rise to the occasion.”
Intel knows its program is working, in part, because of feedback from teachers. “I can teach students on their level instead of teaching to the middle of the class,” one said in a survey. “I am far and away a better math teacher than I could possibly have been otherwise,” said another.
But the main reason for Intel’s confidence in its math-based teacher training program is an ongoing series of studies conducted by the nonprofit research firm WestEd. The most recent WestEd report, which examined the 2009-2010 administration of the course, commended K-8 Math Progressions for the gains made by teachers in both their computational skills and their conceptual understanding of math. It also noted that by the end of the course, teachers felt better prepared and more inclined to teach math.
Burton took the course in 2008, roughly at the midway point, and she says it was time well spent. It made her a more confident math teacher, it made her think about teaching math in fundamentally new and different ways, and it made her look ahead.
“As a K-1 teacher,” she says, “it was nice for me to see a projection over the years for what my students would be learning in years to come, because then it made me think about laying a foundation for them. … It helped me to be thoughtful about what they would encounter later on.”