In the 2004-2005 school year, Madison Elementary School in Sandusky, Ohio, was placed on “Academic Watch” by the Ohio Department of Education. The school had met only 2 out of 10 academic indicators, and student performance in math was especially low, with only 21.6 percent of sixth-graders scoring at or above the proficient level. Academic Watch gave Madison new hurdles to overcome. Through Ohio’s Educational Choice Scholarship program, or EdChoice, parents whose children attend schools on Academic Watch can obtain vouchers that can be used to pay private school tuition. At Madison, as at many other schools in similar situations, the parents who took advantage of the EdChoice program were those whose children had demonstrated academic strengths.
Madison met the challenge of needing to raise math proficiency levels in part through using Riverdeep’s Destination Math (Riverdeep has since merged with Houghton Mifflin) and Tom Snyder Productions’ FASTT Math during the school day and PLATO Learning Environment during an after-school tutoring program. Dennis Iehle, who has taught math at Madison for 25 years, says that math instruction at the school has changed substantially since the school was placed on Academic Watch. Until the mid-2000s, he recalls, “we stuck with the book, and students did worksheets. We didn’t have the technology we have right now.” He sees a clear benefit to students from the new approach in that concepts that are taught by the teacher are reinforced through another medium. “It’s a different voice telling them what they need to know,” he says. “We have shifted from just having the teacher talk, talk, talk.”
Both FASTT Math and Destination Math provide reports for teachers that enable them to identify the specific areas where individual students are having problems. Iehle uses this information to reach out to individual students by either working with these students himself, asking a teacher’s aide to do the same, or, if the students participate in Madison’s after-school math program, notifying the program’s teacher.
As with other schools, Madison was adversely affected by the budget cuts in NCLB IID rounds 4 and 5. “Previously, there were funds available to provide coaching and mentoring services to classroom teachers,” explains Sally Roth, the district’s curriculum director. “The professional development was perhaps the most powerful feature of the district’s Enhancing Education Through Technology grant, and although training was still provided, it did not meet the individual needs of the teachers.” She adds that the cuts also meant that the PLATO Learning subscription had to be discontinued.
Despite these setbacks, the school has maintained its commitment to math achievement. Through a variety of grants, Madison and every other school in the district now have SMART Boards in all core classrooms, which math teachers use to review the kinds of problems students will encounter on the state proficiency test and to hone in on specific areas of weakness.
Sometimes, however, a simple low-tech approach can make a difference. Each month Iehle presents candy bars to students whose names he draws from a jar. The better a student’s performance in math, the more times his or her name goes into the jar. Not only does this motivate the students to do well, but it gives Iehle an opportunity to teach them about probability.
Madison Elementary School has moved from Academic Watch to Continuous Improvement. And that sixth-grade math proficiency score of 21.6 percent? The score from 2006-2007 (the most recent year for which data is available) was 53.8 percent—still well below the state requirement of 75 percent, but a big improvement from 2004-2005.
Don Parker-Burgard is associate editor.