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Home > Administrator's Desk Channel > Administrator's Desk Archive > Administrator's Desk Columnists > Larry Bell Archive > Larry Bell Article LARRY BELL

Somebody Needs You

A Simple Idea for
Improving Math Achievement

Are math word problems killing your state test scores? Or maybe fractions are? Or basic math facts? Whatever it is, you need to take action to do something about it. I have a suggestion that I have seen work very effectively.

At each workshop I present, I challenge teachers to become members of my 100 Percenters Club. In order to qualify as a 100 Percenter, 100 percent of a teacher's students must pass the grade-level state tests. That includes at-promise kids, kids of color, special ed inclusion kids -- all kids.

While members of the 100 Percenters Club might have picked up a few valuable tips from me, I have learned far more from them. The members of the Club have helped me to compile a list of 20 simple things that excellent teachers do to raise scores.

Among the 20 tips, those that are most near and dear to my heart are the ones that raise math achievement test scores. Perhaps those are most dear to me because I was not a good math student. I see immediately how some of these tips might have helped me to be a better student.

One of the simplest tips is this: when teachers disaggregate school-wide test data, they should look for the test questions that lowered their school's scores the most. What skills are associated with those questions? Those are the skills that it will pay to focus on in the year ahead.

Are word problems killing your scores? Or maybe it is fractions? Or basic math facts? Whatever it is, you need to take action to do something about it.

In many cases that I have examined, I have found that word problems are killing the scores of young students of color, particularly young black males. If that is the case in your school, I have a suggestion that I have seen work very effectively.

First, email every teacher on the staff a list of 30 word problems that are the same kind of word problem used on the standardized tests your students take. Those questions might be created by your school's math teachers or, if your state allows, they might be sample problems taken directly from the previous year's test. Email the questions and the answers to all teachers in your school. On the answer page, don't simply list the answers; provide the detailed steps that led to each answer.

Then, at the start of every class, every teacher in every single class must randomly select one math word problem, use an overhead projector to display that problem, and ask students to solve it. Give students a few minutes to do the math, and then take another few minutes to go through the steps to solve the problem.

This idea -- like all 20 of the ideas I have collected -- can be done in 7 to 10 minutes, max, of class time. These ideas can be done at the start of the class, the end of the class, during a moment of transition between activities, or any other time. This might not sound like an effort that will result in higher test scores but, take it from me and the 100 Percenters, it works!

The beauty of the approach is that if you get every teacher in the building -- whether he or she teaches science or language arts or industrial arts -- to work at solving a math word problem during the first 6 or 7 or 10 minutes of every class four times, five times, or six times a day, think of the cumulative effect of having every student do this all year long. This is a tremendous way to help kids get over the fear of these types of problems.

If you teach in an elementary school where students stay in the same classroom all day, every teacher might do this at regular intervals two or three or more times a day. They might do it as a bell-ringer activity at the start of every day, immediately after recess, and immediately after lunch.

If you don't rope the entire school into doing this, why not just the math department? Or the math and science departments? The key is the repetition. Students will see these problems over and over. (You might switch to a new set of 30 problems at semester break. Or give them another skill on which to work.) They almost can't help but absorb the process for solving these problems. It will become second nature to them. Most important, when they see a math word problem on your state's standardized test, they won't get frustrated and freeze up like they did last year. They will be so comfortable with math word problems that your scores can't help but climb.

If you know you have students, especially at-promise students, who are intimidated by and don't do well with a certain type of math, why not start on Day One in September and have every teacher join together to conquer this weakness?

In sports, we make sure kids practice over and over and over those things that intimidate them. Practice is a great tool to use with any skill that can greatly increase the test scores of your must vulnerable students.

My friends, somebody needs you.

Larry Bell


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