School Board Hears About ‘Math Stress’

OSWEGO, NY – Things aren’t adding up for math students in the Oswego City School. Multiply that by the number of students that are getting frustrated and factor in the number of parents aggravated about being unable to help their children with homework and it equals one big headache for the district.

At Tuesday’s school board meeting, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Cathy Chamberlain and the district’s Director of Mathematics Carrie Plasse presented a program on the implementation of the mathematics modules within the district in hopes of providing information and reducing the level of stress for everyone.

Chamberlain explained that the new standards were needed because so many college students being unprepared for college. Many are having to take remedial math courses.

Research has shown that students who scored at least 75 percent on the ELA regents and at least 80 percent on the algebra regents were the students that were successful in college. That was just 37 percent of the students.

“Not a good figure,” Chamberlain said. “We need to go back and see what the issues are and see what the skills are that the students need to be successful.”

They also asked employers what percentage of students (who entered the workforce instead of college) weren’t prepared. The figure was 45 percent.

When asked the same question, college instructors responded with a very similar number – 42 percent.

“Those numbers are abysmal and so they knew that we really needed to take a look at the curriculum and make some big changes,” Chamberlain said.

A common curriculum has been created for the entire country, and so far, 48 states have bought into the program.

“We got new curriculum, that is mandated, the state tells us what curriculum we need to do. So, when the new common core came out, our state bought into it, so that is the curriculum that we need to follow,” Chamberlain said. “It outlines basically every grade level, every subject, what the students need to know and be able to do.”

The state created a resource, modules. It is not mandated. It is a resource that the district has selected to use.

The common core learning standards that the district opted to use have fewer topics that teachers have to teach, but they go much deeper into those topics.

Oswego is in the first year of the implementation of the new standards.

“There is a lot for teachers that is new. And, that is very difficult, especially in the area of math,” Chamberlain added. “We are working along with things as they come out.”

The state said things would be all out by the end of July; now they say everything will be completed by November.

A meeting is scheduled for Friday with all elementary and middle school teachers to make sure they are teaching the content and the skills that are outlined in the modules.

They have to use their own professional judgment when it comes to making certain decisions, Chamberlain pointed out.

For example, one teacher said they were going really fast and the students aren’t understanding the concept.

“So, we are going to explain on Friday that is not what we ant to happen. We know if students aren’t getting it, then we need to step back. If we don’t get all of this finished. We don’t get everything finished. We have to make sure that students are understanding before we move on,” Chamberlain said.

Hopefully Chamberlain is listening to the feedback she is getting from teachers, board member Lynda Sereno said.

“Hopefully, you’re finding ways to bring the stress level down,” she said. “Let’s take the fear factor out.”

“Yes, we know if the teachers are having this much anxiety, it filters down to the students. And, we can’t have that,” Chamberlain agreed.

“This isn’t unique to Oswego. The majority of school districts across the state are experiencing the same stress and frustrations,” Interim Superintendent Gary Mix pointed out. “We need to take the time to do a couple of things. This is one of them right here, you have to have communication about these big changes. The second piece is going to happen on Friday (meeting with teachers).”

He said this is like driving a standard car. “You don’t start out in fourth gear. You start out in low gear and you’ve got to build up a certain degree of speed and momentum before you can go faster.
If our students are ready yet, we need to find the time, to make the time for intervention and more time on class.”

It is a risky proposition, he admitted, because all of the lessons might not get covered.

“We need to make a commitment and that commitment needs to be proficiency. If you make any other decision the only thing you’re really doing is postponing the pain until we get the state assessments and who knows what they are going to look like and who knows what kind of performance (by the students).”

The district will also commit some internal resources to try and help parents, Mix added.

You have to try and distinguish when a student is being challenged and working hard … and when there is a level of frustration, he said.

Last week, someone showed him a picture of their child who “looked frustrated and was on the verge of tears.”

“Guess what, folks? No secret – that’s wrong! This is part of that attempt to really refocus what we are doing,” he said.

“You have to start at the bottom and build up,” board member Tom DeCastro said. “I don’t understand why we didn’t start this kindergarten-first grade. Then, the next year, move to second. If you don’t get through all the modules, where does a first grader start in second grade? We’re short-changing our kids somewhere, in my mind. If you can’t get through all the information, then that kid is short-changed. And, he or she isn’t ready to start the next grade level.”

Some teachers and parents in the audience voiced concerns and asked questions regarding various experiences they have had in the first few weeks of the school year. Some said people were afraid to speak up for fear of reprisal.

Further communication is key to getting from frustration to understanding, Mix said.

“It’s a challenge. It’s going to take a lot of hard work. But that process can work,” he said. “If there is a problem, we need to go to the source. If there is a fear of intimidation (over voicing a concern), we’ve got a lot more work to do in our district than just curriculum.”

This discussion will continue at future board meetings.