Mari Kanagy, Reporter & Designer
Over the past several years, the math program at McMurray Middle School has changed to fit the district’s goals of creating a more inclusive environment, yet the changes have not been beneficial to all students.
The sixth and seventh grade math classes used to consist of both standard and advanced math classes, which students were placed into according to their demonstrated aptitude in previous math classes. Starting in the 2013-14 school year, the sixth grade classes were changed to discontinue the separation of students into different difficulties of math classes. The seventh grade advanced math classes were discontinued the following school year.
Though the district no longer offers both standard and advanced math courses within the middle school, students are still able to progress by skipping a year — either sixth or seventh grade — and thus become a year ahead in the program.
Additionally, students who have no missing assignments and have a high enough grade percentage in the class are offered the chance to work with parent volunteers, who assist said students with more challenging math problems.
The idea behind creating this “one class fits all” system is called “differentiated learning.” In simple terms, it is the act of teaching to students of varying levels, and it occurs to some degree in every classroom. It was incorporated into the design of the McMurray math classes following the advice of Gini Stimpson, who is a math consultant for the school district from the University of Washington.
“The current thinking, generally, … is that dividing students up according to [ability] level ends up disadvantaging students who might be able to move up,” Celina Yarkin, a parent volunteer for STEAM — Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math — Team, an island group that is working to reform the McMurray math program, said. “If they get tracked into a lower level, then it’s very difficult to get out, because they never get the teaching or the instruction that the kids who are moving faster are getting.”
The differentiated learning program is meant to provide equal learning opportunities for all students, regardless of ability level.
“When looking at our program as a whole, teachers and administrators noticed that we were not serving all students in the best possible way, which created larger holes in math achievement over time, particularly for students receiving additional learning services,” Stephanie Spencer, Director of Teaching and Learning, said.
The differentiated learning program was enacted in order to create more equality and opportunity — the change, however, comes with drawbacks for some students.
Because there is such a large range in ability levels between students in a given math class, students on the both the high and low ends of the range of abilities aren’t getting the proper materials and instruction to fit their needs.
“The students come home frustrated with math — both kids who are needing more [of a] challenge, and kids who are working hard to master the concepts,” Yarkin said.
Yarkin outlined three factors that influence the effectiveness of a differentiated learning program: teacher commitment, student ability and administrative support.
“In order to switch gears and to make it work, it takes a lot of commitment, and it takes a lot of work,” Yarkin said.
The range in student ability level is another factor that affects how the teacher addresses the content to the class as a whole; if there is too large of a range of abilities in a single classroom, it can be difficult for the teacher to create a lesson plan that is effective for every student in the class.
Lastly, the teachers need administrative support that allows them to teach to a wide range of students.
“The schools that adopt [differentiated learning] commit to support the teachers and provide materials and coaching as to how to do it successfully,” Yarkin said.
A proposal is currently being advocated for that could help to create a better learning environment for students of all ability levels in differentiated classrooms, as well as lift some stress from teachers.
Yarkin, alongside fellow STEAM Team members, Blythe Deines and Yumi Pringle, McMurray principal Greg Allison and McMurray math teacher Jenny Granum, created the proposal, which outlines a new setup for the differentiated learning program for next school year.
“We have come up with a plan to try and address those issues of trying to provide materials and support for teachers in the classroom,” Yarkin said.
With the current system that is in place, the teachers have no additional room in their schedule available for developing the materials necessary to create a successful differentiated classroom.
The proposal suggests that, in addition to teaching the three algebra classes, Granum would take time over the summer to develop both materials for students who need additional practice with concepts and extension materials for students who are achieving the standards quickly.
Granum would also become the support resource for the other math teachers, in the sense that she would coordinate how to incorporate the curriculum and teaching method to create the best possible learning environment.
The proposal also suggests that a new full-time position be created to gather data assessing the effectiveness of the program, coordinate parent volunteers, plan math competitions and teach extracurricular math.
The STEAM Team members, Allison and Granum presented the proposal first to Spencer and superintendent Michael Soltman, and then to the school board on Thursday, April 26.
If approved, the proposal will be included on the budget for next school year.