Teachers get training to help boost school district’s math program

The Vashon School District is getting help from regional math education experts to strengthen the district’s math program and support teachers as their classes adopt new federal math standards.

Last Thursday, faculty from the University of Washington’s Mathematics Education Project — which consults with about a dozen school districts a year — met with Vashon’s secondary math teachers for a full day of training on teaching strategies. It was the first of many trainings that will occur over the next three years for teachers at all grade levels, said Superintendent Michael Soltman.

“They’re going to have a great opportunity to work with a master teacher who can help them develop that next level of expertise,” Soltman said.

Virginia Stimpson, PhD, a nationally known teaching associate at the UW College of Education, and another UW faculty member will also guide school officials in aligning the district’s math program with new federal standards adopted by the state last year and help them select new textbooks.

Math at the district been an issue of concern over the last couple years among parents, some of whom have brought the topic up at public meetings. Others have met privately with Soltman and Vashon High School principal Susan Hanson to discuss their children’s troubles in math and their concern about the district’s program.

Soltman acknowledged the concerns, noting that some parents have hired private tutors to help their children. He said he hopes the consultants will help address some of the issues.

“I think the greatest majority of our students are learning math well and performing really well on assessments. … I think there are some other students who struggle in math, and we can take some measures to be more effective with them,” he said.

Stimpson, reached on Thursday, said the first training on Vashon went well. She said the middle and high school math teachers seemed willing and eager to try new teaching methods in their classroom — ways of reaching out to different types of learners and assessing whether concepts are understood.

“Some of these things they do already, but some of these things they could get better at doing,” she said. “That’s their self-report.”

Vashon’s math teachers are as qualified as any others, Stimpson said. However, much has been discovered about how children’s brains work since most teachers earned their degrees, and she believes all math teachers should get training based on the latest research.

“It’s been exponential in terms of what we’ve come to know,” she said.

Soltman said the in-depth teacher training has been largely unavailable until now due to the cost and time involved in sending staff off-Island.

“School districts in metro areas typically are able to connect to resources much more easily,” he said.

The first year of the UW program will cost the district about $10,000 and will be covered by PTSA funds as well as funds set aside by the district for professional development.

“It costs quite a bit of money to send two teachers off-Island for a conference all day,” he said. “It’s better if I can find really good, strong resources and bring them to the Island, and I can put the whole department together for the day in the most cost-effective way.”

Roxanne Lyons, the district’s curriculum director, said the consultants’ guidance will also make the district’s adoption of the new federal math standards a little smoother.

She said the new standards, while not radically different than the previous ones, will require students to study a smaller range of math topics more in depth. And some math concepts will be introduced earlier than they have been in the past.

For example, Lyons said, elementary schoolers will begin to learn fractions sooner, and the Algebra 1 class will be taught in eighth grade instead of ninth. The two consultants will train teachers on how to teach some of the topics and will help district staff rearrange secondary math classes if necessary.

“Many people believe it’s moving kids more quickly and with greater rigor. I don’t know about that yet,” Lyons said.

Soltman said he hopes similar professional development programs will be brought to other departments, possibly through grant funding such as the large STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) grant the district recently received. The district, like many others across the country, is looking to boost its math and science programs to prepare students for careers in those fields, Soltman said.

“I think we’re a very good school system,” he said, “and if we can sort of reduce the barrier of isolation and bring in outside resources that allow teachers in our professional learning communities to learn and grow, if we can provide those opportunities, it will be a boost in the end for everybody.”


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