The very first thing you notice about Alyssa Church’s math class is that she never stops moving.
Church, who teaches at Blackstone Valley Prep Junior High in Central Falls, R.I., was working with 25 or so seventh graders on approximations of Pi when I visited her classroom on Monday morning, and I kept on wondering how many steps she gets throughout her day.
When the strap on a female student’s mask snapped off, Church quickly handed her a replacement face cover without interrupting the lesson. When a male student wasn’t quite paying attention, she tapped his desk with a marker to get him back on track.
As Church weaved in and out of rows of students, I saw fully engaged students, most of them of color, learning, discussing, and maybe even kind of enjoying math, a subject that recent test scores show too many kids across Rhode Island aren’t coming close to mastering.
But wait for it: Church might be one of the most effective math teachers I’ve ever seen in person, yet she’s having trouble securing her middle school certification (she took classes online from an accredited university and transferring credits can be difficult). Now she faces the real possibility that she won’t be able to teach next year.
Think about that. Rhode Island is at risk of losing a fantastic educator who pours her heart and soul into teaching the hardest subject because we have a certification process that is stuck in a different era.
Meanwhile, the state is facing a crisis in math.
One third of students in grades three through eight are not meeting any grade-level expectations in math, according to the latest round of Rhode Island Comprehensive Assessment System exam results. That’s 12 percentage points worse than pre-pandemic scores.
By comparison, only about 20 percent of kids are meeting or exceeding expectations in math. Only one school in the entire state, Sowams Elementary School in Barrington, R.I., has at least 70 percent of students proficient in math.
So how do we fix things?
Start by talking to teachers like Church, who will immediately tell you that streamlining the certification process can quickly bring in more quality teachers in STEM subjects.
She also said teacher preparation as a whole needs a dramatic makeover. She recalls taking many more courses on teaching reading when she was in college – when she wanted to be an elementary school teacher – than math courses.
“The fear of math is so pervasive and a whole culture shift needs to happen,” Church said. “I think there’s a bigger emphasis on reading than on math.”
Or talk to Jamie Aguilera, who teaches sixth grade math at West Broadway Middle School in Providence, and ask her about what she sees every day. She’s got students who are still using their fingers for basic addition, and she’s got plenty of other kids who might be behind in math, but haven’t fallen completely off track yet.
When we spoke recently, Aguilera told me that too often a student’s ability in math is judged by how quickly they get to an answer, and that’s reinforced by time-limited exams. She tries to emphasize to her students that that best way to understand math is learn from mistakes, but the test scores come like a punch to the stomach.
“I just feel defeated a lot of the time,” Aguilera, who attended Providence public schools, went off to college, and then returned to her home district through the Teach for America program.
There are creative solutions for policymakers to consider – and there’s money out there to make it happen.
Aside from improving the certification process, Rhode Island College and the University of Rhode Island need to start pumping out more qualified math and science teachers.
As state leaders seek ways to spend $1.1 billion in COVID relief funding, why not consider offering free college at those two schools for anyone who agrees to spend at least two years teaching STEM subjects after they graduate?
If the state gets serious about bringing in more math teachers, then districts could consider placing two teachers in every classroom, a strategy that has worked for some charter schools around the country for years.
Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green has begun floating the idea of year-round schooling, but districts should at least consider extending the school day in districts across the state and adding an extra period of math until we start seeing improvements.
Improving outcomes is also going to require schools to raise expectations of students. At Blackstone Valley Prep, which is a public charter school, students who struggle in math are required to enroll in after-school and summer programming to help them catch up.
All schools can do something like this. It might help hold everyone a little more accountable in the process of learning.
Rhode Island’s education issues run far deeper than whether Church will remain in a classroom next year (though the good news is she’ll probably secure another emergency certification, because the leaders of Blackstone Valley Prep would run into traffic on Lonsdale Avenue to retain her).
Our future itself is at stake. If our political and education leaders don’t start coming up with meaningful solutions, students are going to have a much more difficult time connecting to and thriving in a technology-driven economy over the next several decades.