The snowy slopes of Taos Ski Valley may seem like the last place seventh graders could focus on to learn about math. But in Melissa Romero’s class at El Camino Real Academy, it’s just the spot.
It’s a Tuesday morning, and her students at the Santa Fe school are looking at printed photographs of thermometers stuck in the winter powder. They’re working in groups to determine which slope in the ski valley is at greatest risk for an avalanche by calculating temperature gradients within the snowpack.
“We need to know how warm and cold the upper and lower layers are,” Annabelle Booker, 12, informed the class.
The lesson is guided by a short series of locally filmed videos that follow ski patrol workers as they hunt for avalanches — the last one reveals the answer to the temperature gradient dilemma.
It features the explosive cascade of a triggered avalanche, much to the awe of students in the room.
Romero sent the students to fetch their laptops and take a daily assessment. After answering a few questions, the kids were able to look at their progress through the year.
The idea is to teach the seventh graders more about concepts like integer subtraction and absolute value. It’s part of a curriculum called MidSchool Math.
Advocates for the program, developed in Taos, hope it will change attitudes around math for students at a pivotal moment in their academic careers — while simultaneously holding them to grade-level standards in a state where math proficiency historically lags and remains the subject hardest hit by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Though Santa Fe Public Schools chose to adopt MidSchool Math prior to the pandemic, the change also represents a new approach the Public Education Department is asking districts to take in order to get kids who may have been left behind back up to speed.
The education department has put $50 million in pandemic relief funds toward professional development focused on getting teachers on board with a practice called “accelerated learning” — which opts for teaching kids of all levels at the same standard, while providing “just in time” review for students who need extra help.
Helping orchestrate the effort is a national organization called The New Teacher Project. Research from the organization indicates students from different backgrounds receive unequal access to grade-level assignments, and that expanding access to on-grade learning can be an equalizer for those who are behind.
Karen Salerno, who oversees The New Teacher Project’s efforts in New Mexico, said the return to in-person learning offers the opportunity for accelerated learning to make an impact in the state.
“The issue of needing to move away from remedial instruction is not a new one. What is new is the opportunity to set a standard for how we approach serving students who are far behind,” Salerno said.
At a recent Legislative Finance Committee meeting, policy analysts praised the concept but expressed concerns it’s not being implemented fully enough.
Questions remain about how much time teachers in New Mexico will have to adjust as they work to accelerate rather than remediate, said National Education Association New Mexico president Mary Parr-Sanchez.
She said many teachers are still dealing with COVID-19 safety protocols and teaching online courses for quarantining students while coping with other issues.
“I would tell you that most experienced educators, they’ve already got this,” she said of accelerated learning. “I think though, with the number of new folks we have that haven’t been traditionally trained, they may not. That’s where there needs to be mentorship, there needs to be support.”
The New Teacher Project recently “finalized” its partnership with New Mexico, making more defined plans to spread the teaching method to local schools.
Rep. Debra M. Sariñana, D-Albuquerque, a former high school freshman teacher, is concerned about the switch.
She said at the start of each school each year in her classroom, some students were ready for high school while others were still at an elementary level, according to their assessment data.
“I’m just not sure on this one,” she said during the recent Legislative Finance Committee meeting.
Joel Rose, director of a New York-based nonprofit called New Classrooms, said he saw the same differences in student readiness when he worked as a math teacher in Texas. He said catching kids up can be a lot.
“Asking a seventh grade teacher to both teach all of the seventh grade standards and identify the specific gaps that each student has relative to those standards and address those gaps all at the same time is a tall order for even the best of teachers,” he said.
While The New Teacher Project has examined the impact access to grade-level material has on learning progress, Rose’s organization looks to the cumulative nature of learning, particularly in the realm of math.
Research from New Classrooms demonstrates that teaching children at-level can exacerbate the difficulties they face as they move through the school system.
Rose also said it can be more work for teachers.
His organization set forth another middle school math curriculum, which like MidSchool Math uses frequent assessments to track progress. However, his program splits kids up in class based on what they need to learn on any given particular day.
Rose calls it “tailored” acceleration.
Though some are ambivalent about approaches to accelerated learning, Santa Fe Public Schools is all in on MidSchool Math. A 2017 analysis from the Legislative Education Study Committee showed schools using the program had math proficiency rates more than 10 percentage points above others.
“We did deliberately do something different in middle school,” said Santa Fe Public Schools curriculum director Peter McWain. “There’s many reasons why. The story-based problems in MidSchool Math really require students to determine the information they need to solve problems.”
McWain noted eighth grade readiness for high school math is critical because students will need to enter Algebra I their freshman year. He added it’s the most commonly failed class in high school.
Last year, a districtwide committee unanimously voted to implement MidSchool Math as the core math curriculum for all middle schoolers for the next six years. Before that, curriculum varied from class to class.
Melissa Romero at El Camino Real Academy said the adjustment to the new curriculum has been difficult for other math teachers — especially in schools that might have shorter block periods. Her class is more than an hour and a half long, which she says gives her enough time to reinforce concepts.
Another complicating factor for some teachers: The new curriculum was rolled out when many middle school math teachers were grappling with online learning.
“I see a lot of hesitation with this,” Romero said. “It’s unknown.”
She added a proper rollout for MidSchool Math is going to be essential for teachers to feel comfortable changing their teaching approaches.
The impact of the program remains to be seen, in part because the state Public Education Department has ceased the use of standardized assessments after the 2018-19 school year and waived testing requirements for schools through the coronavirus pandemic.
Santa Fe Public Schools made mandatory a new optional assessment during the 2020-21 school year, and district numbers were low.
During the 2020-21 school year, results showed only 13 percent of eighth grade students were “on target” for their grade level in math at the end of the year, though that’s a 7 percentage point jump from the 6 percent who were “on target” at the start of the year.
When those numbers came out last school year, then-Superintendent Veronica García expressed confidence it could take a few years before proficiency rates rise among high schoolers due to MidSchool Math.
Though other teachers are acclimating to the new program, Romero has been using the MidSchool Math on her own for years, which she employs to push all students to learn at grade-level while identifying those who need extra help.
The students in her class studying when an avalanche may occur had a variety of skill levels. One student was learning English as a second language and required some one-on-one help translating materials. Another, Romero said, was further behind the other kids at his table.
At the beginning of the year, Romero said she had to reteach some kids basic concepts. Still, everyone in her class is presented with the same materials and taught to the same grade-level standards.
“Some people struggle with that … but if we don’t get them to this level and we remain teaching them the skills they should have already learned, then we’re really wasting a lot of time,” she said. “They’re not going to be prepared for next year.”