Navigating Between the Professional Rock and the Personal Hard Place (Math Practice with Dr. Richard Cash)

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Navigating Between the Professional Rock and the Personal Hard Place is a scenario-based blog series aimed at helping educators effectively navigate how to address instructional, cultural, and procedural concerns with colleagues to help achieve a positive outcome.(The Professional Rock) in a productive and collaborative manner, all while keeping in mind the ever-present concerns of resentment, fractured relationships, or even retribution that impacts us or, more importantly, our children and students (The Personal Hard Place).
As a reminder, names and some personal information have been changed to protect individuals who submitted scenarios

If you are an educator/parent and have ever found yourself to be or currently are Navigating the Professional Rock and the Personal Hard Place, please provide your scenario to our blog series by contacting Brandon Macrafic at brandon@firsteducation-us.com.

Series Entry #4: April 14, 2019 Featuring Richard M. Cash, Ed.D.
Easton is an upper elementary school student who has always enjoyed school and, in particular, Mathematics. Easton’s father, Nick, is a primary school teacher who teaches in his school and his mother, Mary, is a Middle School Principal in another district. The school year has just started and Easton is struggling to keep up with his mathematics homework, which consists primarily of IXL math practice. In a typical week Easton is required to complete 3-5 IXL lessons. Easton’s parents are initially supportive of this particular practice expectation, however they soon learn that Easton’s teacher requires each student to earn a “smartscore” of at least 70 to “pass” the lesson. The higher a student’s smartscore, the higher their homework grade will be.

Nick and Mary, being familiar with IXL, understand that a student’s smartscore is intended to measure their mastery of a particular skill and that the number of practice problems each student will need to complete to earn a proficient smartscore will vary, as will the amount of time each student takes to complete a lesson. They notice that Easton’s focus quickly diverts from the actual mathematics learning to simply the smartscore and he soon recognizes that getting a question incorrect is far more punishing to his score than a correct answer is rewarding. As the weeks progress, Nick and Mary notice Easton’s attitude take a negative turn relative to both mathematics and school in general.

Nick and Mary decide to reach out to Easton’s teacher to inquire about the required score of 70 and are told that a 70 is the bare minimum to pass, information that was not communicated previously. When they ask about the purpose of IXL, expecting to hear that it provides targeted practice, they are told that it is great feedback for the teacher on where each of his students are relative to a particular skill. Not wanting to question a colleague, they accept the response as is.

After some consideration, they realize that if every student returns to class with a smartscore of 70 the teacher really isn’t learning anything about any student. Additionally, this expectation brings into question a number of equity concerns, namely the fact that some students may not have access to IXL at home, some may not have adults who can help them, and others may have adults completing the work for them. It seems logical to Nick and Mary that if the main purpose of IXL is for students to practice and for both students and teachers to receive feedback on their skill proficiency, it might be better to have every student initially complete a set number of problems, regardless of their smartscore, which would give a clear picture of who understand the concept/skill and who doesn’t.

Nick and Mary are struggling with whether, and how, to address their ongoing concerns about the approach Easton’s teacher is taking with IXL and the impact it is having on Easton’s dwindling love of mathematics.

Key Questions for Nick and Mary:

1. How can Nick and Mary address their concerns both professionally and effectively without jeopardizing the existing relationship Nick has with his colleague?

“My initial response to this issue is one of great concern. First, homework, as practice, should not be graded—especially if there is no one to assist in correcting the practice. In this case, Easton has become more concerned about the smartscore than he is about what he’s learning. Considerable evidence indicates that the use of extrinsic reward/punishment has little to any effect on achievement or learning. What was once of great intrinsic interest for this child has been turned into a drudgery of drill and kill.

Second, at home practice should only be used once the child is proficient with the practice under the supervision of the teacher. This teacher has taken the idea of the flipped classroom and flipped it on its head—doing no one any benefit. The child is turned off to math, the parents are frustrated and it is doubtful the classroom teacher is gaining better knowledge about the child’s learning—if he did, he would know the child is growing increasingly frustrated.

Nick and Mary have every right to be concerned about their child. Nick will have to put his concern about his “professional” relationship aside and address this as the relationship of the consumer (parent to teacher). In cases like this, I’m always recommending that parents provide data to support their claims: amount of time the child spends per night on the IXL program, amount of frustration the child is verbalizing, changes in behavior at home, and so on. This data is not to prove the teacher wrong in their practice. It is meant to share how the practice is negatively affecting their child. Also, having suggestions as to how to change the practice for their child that can make it more acceptable and less stressful. Remember, you are not asking the teacher to change practice for all students, just your child. If the teacher is resistant to making the change, then it’s time to communicate with the building principal.

Now is the time to request a meeting with the building principal and classroom teacher. Don’t be confrontational. Be matter of fact—here is what our child is experiencing and here is the unintentional outcome. Keep the focus on what is best for Easton and how to get him connected to math again. I suggest that all members of the team leave their ego and “degrees” at the door. This meeting is all about getting Easton to love math again and continue to soar academically.”

2.How can/should Nick and Mary address Easton’s growing disinterest in mathematics?

“The parents need to get Easton re-interested in mathematics as fun, intellectually challenging and full of ways to solve complex problems. I would suggest starting with logic problems, number puzzles and math games. Play with numbers, such as looking for the most common number on license plates, telephone numbers or addresses of friends. Using your GPS, have him “guess-timate” the distance and time it takes to get to a location. Take that one step further and figure out the average speed you traveled from point A to point B. Read books to your child that have mathematical concepts or numbers embedded in the stories can make math come alive and are often funny as well (check out the WeAreTeachers website). The parents should also share their love for math and using it to solve problems. Let him observe you as you balance your checkbook, figure out a discount or average the price of gasoline over the past two weeks.

 

Other ways to engage him in the love of math can be found in your local science museum or children’s museum. They often times will have exhibits that focus on the integration of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). Putting math into the real-world works wonders when trying to re-engage them into “learning” math.”

About the Authors:

Brandon Macrafic is a Principal on Special Assignment for Career and College Readiness for the Rochester Public Schools in southeast Minnesota. He also serves as the FIRST Educational Resources Regional Director for the states of Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Montana, Nebraska, and Wyoming.  Brandon started his career as a middle and high school German teacher before serving as a secondary building administrator in both Hayfield and Rochester, MN. His educational passions include school and leadership reform, proficiency based assessment, grading, and reporting, and career pathways.  Brandon lives in Kasson, MN with his wife, Katie, who is a kindergarten teacher, and their two children, Henry and Ellie.
Twitter: @BKM31

Dr. Cash received a bachelor of arts degree in theater from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. After a brief retail career, Dr. Cash attended the University of Minnesota-Minneapolis, where he received a post-baccalaureate degree in elementary education. His first teaching position in a magnet school for gifted children, grades 1–6, in St. Paul, Minnesota, allowed him to use my talents as an actor and director. He created learning spaces that were rich in artistry, music, theater, and dance.

Richard later obtained a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from the University of St. Thomas, in St. Paul, Minnesota. He became a curriculum specialist and developed training modules, curriculum formats, and differentiated learning archetypes that assisted teachers in creating higher-level experiences to meet the needs of all children. Later, he returned to St. Thomas and received a doctoral degree in educational leadership.

Dr. Cash has served as the Administrator of Gifted Programs in Rochester, Minnesota, and the Director of Gifted Programs for the Bloomington Public Schools in Minnesota. In Bloomington, he realigned the gifted programs to service more students during a budget deficit and incorporated differentiated instruction into the total school curriculum. During his tenure with the Bloomington Public Schools, he created a school-within-a-school program for highly/profoundly gifted students, grades 2 – 10.

Dr. Richard Cash has given hundreds of workshops, presentations, and staff-development sessions throughout the United States, Europe, Asia and the Middle East. The research-based strategies and techniques he offers are proven to increase student achievement. Others have commended his talent for working with teachers to develop engaging and enriching learning environments that can improve student learning. At the end of the day, his greatest passion is helping teachers recognize the various talents all children possess and create learning experiences to allow those talents to flourish. He is considered by many to be an exceptionally engaging, motivating, and enlightening presenter.

Twitter: @RichardCash

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