Nancy Phillips retired from teaching math in 2007 but has worked on curriculum at Warren Elementary School (WES) since then. She presented an overview of the school’s math program to the school board at their May 24 meeting.
WES principal Beth Peterson said that most classes do one hour of math per day. “I like to think of it as, the school stops and all does math for an hour,” she said.
Phillips explained that in 1999, the school received national test results and did not like how students at WES measured up. The staff formed a math committee in order to research math curriculum that could be used uniformly throughout the school.
The following year saw the adoption of Every Day Math Programming, which many Vermont schools used. Teachers were trained and five years later when NECAP test results were released, WES students’ scores were much improved. Some years they scored in the top 10 Vermont public schools for math ability.
In 2011, the school had to better align their curriculum with the new, national standards of Common Core. The Every Day program was not working well and in 2014 Phillips recommended the only free program out there that addressed Common Core standards.
The program, Engage NY, moves from concepts to symbolism to abstract ideas and problem solving. Teachers learned how to administer one lesson plan per day in the span of one hour. The program includes 150 total lessons.
Fourth-grade math teacher Katie Sullivan said that the new curriculum eliminates lessons in probability and logic in favor or deeper understanding of other concepts. She said that students must keep practicing until they get it right, “each time, adding a layer of depth.”
DOES HOMEWORK MATTER?
Warren School Board member Jen Watkins wondered whether there is any evidence that homework matters much in the long run.
Peterson said that according to research, homework “makes virtually no difference” for elementary school students, but it does help in the upper grade levels. She said that while some parents want less homework for their kids, some actually want more.
Sullivan said that she expects her students to do about 20 minutes of work at home for the sake of practicing concepts, labeling the assignment with their name and date and bringing it back to school.
“As third- and fourth-graders, they’re ready for that,” she said, “but if that doesn’t fit into families’ lives, I can make accommodations.”
“Homework is something that is controversial and is so different in different families. ... If the homework is coming with any kind of angst or strife, it shouldn’t be,” Sullivan said.
Watkins said that as her kids get older, they get more homework and more boredom sets in. Yet, they think they must complete it.
“During parent week, teachers were very clear. Homework is optional. ... You can always opt out of it,” Peterson said. “But the kids don’t translate that and that’s a different problem.”
Warren board member Alycia Biondo said that homework is useful in seeing what her kids are learning at school during the day. “To hear them tell me, it’s important,” she said.
“The world is so big and there’s so many things to do with one’s time and if there’s evidence that says this is not a helpful way for a child to spend their time, I’m wondering why as a school we would continue to suggest this is how they spend their time,” Watkins said.
Or, maybe repetitive tasks featured on worksheets could be phased out. “If one were to give homework, perhaps it would not be the same worksheets, but perhaps it would be more engaging questions that kids would love to struggle with or think about. There’s just a million different ways to go about it,” Watkins said.
“That’s not dissimilar from what actually happens,” Peterson said, explaining that each math lesson includes problem solving of “real-world problems.”
The philosophies and policies regarding homework will evolve over time and school board chair Matthew “Chicky” Staples said, “It does seem like a good idea to staff a discussion on the workload.”