Data Driven Curriculum Choices

Division Directors' Blog
Posted on January 15, 2014
by Julie Schlossinger, Lower School Director

Parent engagement is among the most influential factors in elementary education, whether it’s reading with your child at home or maintaining a healthy dialogue with teachers and the administration. Of course, as an adminstrator, its nice to hear when we are doing something right, but just as valuable are the conversations that challenge us. Recently, I’ve heard a lot of concerns from parents about Everyday Math (EM), which is the core of the lower school mathematics program. I am hopeful this post will shed some light and valuable insight on this debate, regardless of your position.

In recent years, EM has come under quite a bit of scrutiny from educators, parents, and publishers. With the addition of Math in Focus (a revised Singapore Math program) and enVisions to the market, schools across the country have been re-evaluating their options, and so has VMS. That said, after careful research, we still believe that EM is the best choice for building foundational math skills in lower school students that will serve them well not only in the short term, but also as they make their way through the three divisions and 13 grades at VMS.

Statistics are driving the EM debate. It’s scary to read the newspapers today and find less than desirable test scores and results for American students. The Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, collects test results from 65 countries for its rankings, which come out every three years. The latest results, from 2012, show that U.S. students ranked below average in math among the world’s most-developed countries. “In mathematics, 29 nations and other jurisdictions outperformed the United States by a statistically significant margin, up from 23 three years ago,” reports Education Week. However, it’s important to put into perspective something very different between the U.S. educational system and that of the top performing countries around the world–amount of content. Fourth grade math textbooks in the U.S. average almost 500 pages, more than three times the length of math texts in Asia, Europe, and South America. Additionally, U.S. mathematics teachers cover on average 16 to 19 topics during the school year. In Japan and China, teachers focus extensively on only four major topics.

So what are we doing at VMS in response to the Everyday Math debate and these statistics? First, we have gathered the research available on the three most popular math curriculums on the market: EM, Math in Focus, and enVisions noting data and recommendations. Then, we compared these three programs side-by-side, looking at content, philosophy of instruction and learning, and assessment. Last, we inquired with the middle and upper school teachers regarding their opinion of math preparedness coming out of fifth grade.

Current evidence-based data, as assessed by the Institute of Education–the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education–show only two programs for which there is evidence of effectiveness: Everyday Math and enVision. Everyday Math, reviewed in 2010, provides an 11 percentile gain for the average student and enVision, reviewed in 2013, provides a 6 percentile gain for the average student. Singapore Math was reviewed in 2011, but no studies met the IES quality standards, so there is no credible data. Math in Focus (the revised edition) does not appear in the IES database, presumably because it is a rather new program, so again, there is no credible data to evaluate the program. This is not to say that these programs are ineffective, but rather that there does not seem to be evidence for their effectiveness at this time.

After viewing the research and evaluating these programs side-by-side we concluded the following:
  • All three programs have exactly the same content in each grade level, as they all are based on the Common Core, however, the scope and sequence of these programs vary at each grade level.
  • EM and enVision follow the “spiral” philosophy, where learning is spread out over time and material is revisited repeatedly over months and across grades. While Math in Focus teaches math concepts to mastery by emphasizing the various facets of each concept, and then limiting repetition from year to year. It would seem that a spiral philosophy is more effective.
  • Assessments for all three programs are similar. They are language based and each includes a section on problem solving of a higher order thinking question.
In addition to quantitative IES studies, we also looked to qualitative feedback from VMS faculty and students. As a veteran VMS teacher (10 years), along with Kristin Douthitt (12 years) and KC Lasher (13 years), it’s been very informative for us to watch students move through all three divisions and onto college. A large number of our students in the lower school have grown into proficient mathematicians taking calculus and statistics in the upper school, scoring 5s (the highest possible score) on AP tests, and even testing out of required math courses in college. When freshman and sophomore graduates come back to VMS, we have interviewed them about their preparedness in college. Through the years, a vast majority report feeling very prepared for the rigors of college, and when they compare themselves to their new collegiate peers, they feel confident and secure.

As a result of our inquiry, we will continue to use Everyday Math, but will also continue to review any new research and data that provides information on math instruction and programs. To ensure success beyond the EM program, and to investigate how we might move toward the internationally proven approach of less content and more focus, we have begun working in grade-level teams to identify the “non-negotiable” essential learning for each math unit, and creating common, formative assessments for every student. Once the data from these assessments has been reviewed, a team including grade level teachers, Student Support Services, and myself, will create a plan for re-teaching and enrichment in small groups in response to specific needs.

This format is known as a PLC (Professional Learning Community), an approach that focuses on student learning and achievement and one that we are in the process of implementing in the lower school. Look for my next blog post to share more information on our work with PLCs.

In the meantime, my door is always open, and I welcome the opportunity to turn this post into dialogue and engage with parents about their child’s learning.

About Vail Mountain School

Founded in 1962, Vail Mountain School is a K-12, coed, independent school in Vail, Colorado. Our philosophy is to provide a demanding, college preparatory, liberal arts education in an atmosphere of mutual respect between faculty and students, where nurturing a healthy self-concept and stimulating academic inquiry are parallel objectives. Intentionally designed cross-age programs promote role modeling, responsibility, self confidence, and a sense of community. Our location in the Rocky Mountains allows us to integrate the outdoors into the academic and cultural fabric of the school through hut trips, all-school Ski Fridays, and other experiential learning opportunities. The result: our graduates possess a quiet confidence that serves them well in college and in life—confidence to assert themselves in their first college level essays; to raise their hand in a class of hundreds; to live on their own for the first time, to meet with and engage their professors; and to lead among their peers.