Method more than numbers

CNJ staff photo: Tony Bullocks Ranchvale fourth-grade teacher Shelly Flygare said she spent two weeks learning a new method of teaching math.

By Gabriel Monte: CNJ staff writer

Ranchvale Elementary teacher Shelly Flygare drew a pattern of lines and dots on the board to teach her class to find the product of 24 and 13. Each line or dot breaks down the value of the factors, she said. Dots represented ones, and the lines represented tens.

After another series of lines, dots and a box, the class came to the conclusion of 312.

Then she moved onto a division problem comprised of a grid of 100 boxes. Her class had to figure out how to distribute 60 Girl Scout cookies among four people. A couple of dots later, the class worked out that each person would get 15 cookies.

Dots, lines and boxes are the tools Ranchvale elementary fourth-graders use to learn math, a method called Number Literacy Strategy that is lifting math scores in Clovis elementary schools by addressing a trend in standards-based testing requiring students to prove their understanding of mathematical concepts.

The New Mexico Public Education Department’s Math and Science Bureau recognized Ranchvale Elementary on Tuesday in Santa Fe for having the highest percentage of students in the state proficient in the math section of last year’s standards-based assessment test taken by third-graders.

Ranchvale Principal Suzanne Brockmeir credits the students’ success to the strategy.
“It’s a new way of presenting the material,” she said. “They’re still teaching the same benchmarks that the state requires, but it’s a more visual, hands-on approach to looking at those numbers.”

Nearly a dozen elementary schools in the Clovis school district teach with the strategy, according to district Curriculum Director Cindy Martin.
The strategy was introduced to the school district about five years ago, by a consultant firm called Head and Pollet, Martin said.

The teaching method is helping Clovis elementary students grasp math much better because it teaches the meaning behind the operations, according to Sandia Elementary Principal Jay Brady.

“It enables the child to connect meaning to those abstract numbers,” he said. “So when you look at addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, kids can connect using visual models and understand the meaning of the operation or the concept or the skill.”

The strategies reflect a national requirement that students explain how they solve mathematical problems, according to Zia Elementary Principal Jarilyn Butler.

“These are national standards,” she said. “This is the direction that mathematics has moved in our country, where we’re no longer about ‘can you answer two plus two?’ It’s solving a problem.”

Math scores improved in most elementary schools since the strategies were implemented in 2005, according to Martin. The average percentage of elementary students deemed proficient in math in 2005 was 39.31 percent; in 2007 it rose to 47.81 percent, according to school district records.

Schools such as Ranchvale Elementary and Parkview Elementary have seen dramatic improvement.
Cameo and James Bickley elementary schools saw a dip in their scores, but Martin said they are starting to implement the strategies this year.

Aside from teaching students mathematical concepts, the strategies integrate higher mathematical concepts to prepare them for more complex subjects such as algebra, Brady said.
But it isn’t only students who have to learn these strategies, Butler said. Teachers have to relearn mathematics before they can teach them.

“They understand the concepts, but most of the teachers did not experience this as children. We weren’t taught that way, and so it’s not only a matter of helping children learn these concepts. We have to start with us as adults,” she said.