How A Rural US School System Makes Gains in Math

03 October 2023

Many students across the United States fell behind in math during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many educators are seeking ways to bring students back up to usual math levels.

Such efforts paid off for a rural school system in the southern state of Alabama. It has shown major improvement.

A study called the Nation's Report Card shows that Alabama students led the nation in maintaining math learning during the pandemic. And the state's Piedmont City school system landed at the top in a comparison of scores from before and during the pandemic. Nationwide, students on average fell half a year behind in math, researchers say.

Piedmont math teacher Cassie Holbrooks helps a small group of fourth-grade students with a math problem in Piedmont, Ala., on Aug. 31, 2023. (Trisha Powell Crain/ via AP)
Piedmont math teacher Cassie Holbrooks helps a small group of fourth-grade students with a math problem in Piedmont, Ala., on Aug. 31, 2023. (Trisha Powell Crain/ via AP)

The Piedmont school system has about 1,100 students. Seven out of 10 children receive reduced-cost or free meals in the schools.

The school system has stuck with a policy it established before the pandemic: Teachers use test scores to learn where students are struggling and then target teaching to each child.

"We made a total transformation about five years ago," said Mike Hayes, the school system's chief. "We decided that we were going to let data make every decision."

Targeted instruction for small groups of students has years of research and evidence to back it up, said Rebecca Dreyfus of the educational nonprofit TNTP.

"The short answer is that using data effectively and efficiently to plan and monitor instruction is always going to make instruction better for kids," Dreyfus said.

Piedmont students were 35th in math skills for the state in 2017, when Hayes became the school system's leader. By spring 2022, Piedmont's students had moved to the 12th position.

"Once we made that decision and stuck to it and made changes and allowed our teachers time to look at the data and dive into the data, it paid off," Hayes said.

Teachers go deep into data

As part of the effort, the Piedmont school system made the school day longer. This permitted time every four weeks for "data days," when educators get together to study the numbers.

Cassie Holbrooks teaches fourth-grade math. She said the "data days" help teachers see where the weaknesses are and target instruction.

Sixth-grade teacher Lisa Hayes joined the school system five years ago. She said she was surprised to see how hard teachers worked during the data days.

"When I came here and we had a workday," she said, "you don't sit in your room. You're in here (the media center) most of the day, digging through test scores."

Teachers then use the information to decide how to divide the students into small groups for targeted instruction.

Grouping two to six students together to work on a specific skill has long been used for reading instruction and in younger grades. There is less research on the use of targeted small group instruction in math. But researchers like Dreyfus say it involves the same idea of identifying students who need extra help, rather than simply pulling out children who are "behind."

Small groups and independent work

While math teachers in Piedmont schools work with small groups, other students write in their math books, play learning games, or work on individual learning plans.

At first, when Piedmont expanded small group instruction in math, teachers said they did not have enough time to do the work well, Hayes said. So the schools expanded math and English language study time to between 80 and 120 minutes each day.

The longer math classes made a big difference, teacher Landon Pruitt said. "In a 52- or 53-minute class," he said, "there's no way you can consistently do (small groups) and work on getting through the standards that you have to cover."

The schools also had to help teachers adjust classroom management techniques as small groups and independent work would be done at the same time. Hayes said one solution was to give teachers a program to monitor each students' screen. The district wants to make sure teachers have the support and resources to do the job well, he added.

"I'm not sure we have a secret sauce or anything..." Hayes said. But, he noted that the teachers believe in learning data, and letting that data direct instruction.

I'm Caty Weaver.

Trisha Powell Crain reported this story for AL.COM and The Associated Press. Hai Do adapted the story for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

maintain - v. to continue doing something

transformation - n. a complete or major change

instruction - n. action or process of teaching

monitor - v. to watch, observe, listen, or check something for a period of time

allow - v. to permit

consistently - adv. doing something with the same quality

standard - n. a level of quality

adjust - v. to change in order to do better