U.S. Department of Education officials stopped in at the Erikson
Institute Thursday morning to highlight the Early Mathematics Education
Project, winner of a $5 million federal Investing in Innovation grant.

U.S. Department of Education officials stopped in at the Erikson Institute Thursday morning to highlight the Early Mathematics Education Project, winner of a $5 million federal Investing in Innovation grant.

Jacqueline Jones, senior advisor for early learning, noted that the project is of special interest to the federal government. “A big piece of our agenda is looking at the early childhood workforce,” she said. “It’s so interesting for us to have young children, teacher development, the coaching model, and math together.”

Last school year, the project reached 79 teachers in 37 schools, touching a total of 2,200 students. (Over 300 teachers have been part of the project since it began four years ago.) In addition to coaching in their classroom, teachers get extra math instruction in several “learning lab” sessions and participate in school-based groups to work on lesson planning. 

Now, with the grant money, the program will hone in on eight North Side schools and expand to include 1st, 2nd and 3rd grade teachers.

Starting in fall 2013, it will also test a new approach with teachers, called lesson study.

Teachers from different grades will meet in groups, plan a lesson (known as a research lesson because they are testing it out), and assign a teacher to deliver it to a class that isn’t their own. The goal: creating “pockets of collaboration” in schools that will ultimately outlast the grant funding.

That way, teachers will be able to focus just on improving their instruction in a context that’s not affected by their existing class relationships. Other teachers will critique the lesson.

The increased collaboration comes as researchers and policymakers are focusing more attention on integrating preschool through 3rd grade education and ensuring students have a smooth transition from preschool to kindergarten and 1st grade.

The schools – Brentano, De Diego, Manierre, Gale, Jordan, Cleveland, Lorca, and Reinberg – were chosen because they had a high need for quality math instruction, as shown by low ISAT scores. Erikson had to turn away some schools because mobility rates higher than 30 percent could make it difficult to evaluate the project.

What’s more, the project’s work will be expanded to include local community college teacher education programs through a two-year, $450,000 grant from the McCormick Foundation. It isn’t clear yet which schools will participate.

And at the Ounce of Prevention Fund’s Educare Center, the same seven-session math program that is offered to teachers will be turned into a seven-session class for parents, to deepen their math knowledge and help them reinforce important concepts at home.

Building math knowledge

Early-childhood educators often focus heavily on “constructivist” educational theories, the idea that young students learn through exploration and building on their existing experiences of the world.

Until now, this approach has meant that math largely gets left out. “We don’t understand math. We think math has to relate to symbols (but) children are concrete thinkers” so math doesn’t get taught, says Jie-Qi Chen, the project’s principal investigator.

The Early Mathematics Education Project, on the other hand, helps teachers understand how children build math knowledge from their experience – partly by giving teachers a deeper understanding of math concepts.


“We have to take responsibility and leadership for moving the field forward,” Jones said.

There is evidence the project is working – students whose teachers participated in the program averaged three months’ more math knowledge than a comparison group, according to an Erikson evaluation of the program. 

Around Chicago and the rest of the state, however, it’s not clear whether math instruction is improving. The Chicago Program Evaluation Project found in a 2008 report by Mathematica Policy Research that just 22 percent of observed preschool classes included math activities, and a recent evaluation of the state Preschool for All program found that students made no progress in math.

“Many teachers chose to teach pre-K and the early grades because they thought they’d never have to do very much math,” says Rebeca Itzkowich, senior instructor at Erikson and the program’s supervisor.

How coaching works

A group of coaches watches a video of a lesson in which, after reading the story of Goldilocks and the three bears, children explore the concept of measurement, trying to find lengths of objects that are “just right” for the size of their hands.

The teacher prompts students to place the objects at the base of their wrist to measure them with their hands, and points out that something that’s “just right” for one student may not be sized right for another. “Comparison depends on the measurement tool that we use, and measurement has to be fair,” Chen explains.

During each classroom observation, teachers come up with a question about their own teaching, which the coaches are supposed to help them answer. In this case, Itzkowich read the question aloud before the video: “What kind of math language am I using as the children are finding things that are just right for them?”

Observation and documentation “is the core of what we’re doing, because we’re always asking, ‘Where’s the math? Where is this child’s understanding? What do they already know?’” Itzkowich says.

As they watch the video, the coaches practice collecting data that will help the teacher answer this question. The goal, in this case, is to help the teacher increase use of words like “longer” and “shorter,” which are more precise, accurate, and subject-specific.

When the lesson is over, one coach explains what she did: a chart tallying the number of times the teacher used math vocabulary words like longer, taller, shorter, measure, compare, length, just right.

Another coach also charted the math words that some of the students were using, illustrating their growing math vocabulary.

Coach Veronica Castro says that this model of coaching is beneficial because teachers come up with the questions they want to answer about their own teaching. The coach is there to provide resources and help the teacher collect data, rather than “judging what their teaching is like.”

“(Teachers) having more ownership has helped,” Castro says.

Adds coach Katie Morgan: “We take the data (and) present it to them… but they also see the video of their own teaching. They kind of come to their own realizations.”

It is a different approach from that used by many other CPS coaches, says coach Patricia Garner.

“There is a type of coaching…where they just sit, write, don’t talk, don’t introduce themselves,” Garner says. That can seem punitive to many teachers.

Jennifer McCray, project director for the program, says that video helps keep the focus of coaching on the teacher’s actions.

“What teachers want to talk about when we first start coaching is what the kids did,” she says, something that is not in teachers’ control. “Getting the teacher to focus on his or her own actions is key.”

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.