How One School Is Beating the Odds in Math, the Pandemic’s Hardest-Hit Subject (Sarah Mervosh)

Sarah Mervosh is a national reporter at The New York Times covering education with a focus on children, families and the educators who serve them from preschool through 12th grade. She previously covered the coronavirus pandemic and breaking news for The Times and was a reporter at The Dallas Morning News. She grew up in Pittsburgh and graduated from the University of Notre Dame.

This article appeared October 15, 2022

It’s just after lunchtime, and Dori Montano’s fifth-grade math class is running on a firm schedule.

In one corner of the classroom, Ms. Montano huddles with a small group of students, working through a lesson about place value: Is 23.4 or 2.34 the bigger number? Nearby, other students collaborate to solve a “math mystery.” All the while, Ms. Montano watches the time.

At 1:32 p.m., she presses a buzzer, sending students shuffling: “Ladies and gentleman, switch please!”

This is what pandemic recovery looks like at Benjamin Franklin Elementary in Meriden, Conn., where students are showing promising progress in math, a subject that was hit hard during the shift to remote learning, even more so than reading.

The school’s math progress may not look like much: a small improvement amounting to a single decimal point increase from spring 2019 to the spring of this year, according to state test results.

But by pandemic standards, it was something of a minor miracle, holding steady when test scores nationally have fallen, particularly among low-income, Black and Hispanic students, the children that Franklin serves. About three in four students at the school qualify for free or reduced lunch, and a majority are Hispanic, Black or multiracial.

The groundwork was laid before the pandemic, when Franklin overhauled how math was taught.

It added as much as 30 minutes of math instruction a day. Students in second grade and above now have more than an hour, and fourth and fifth graders have a full 90 minutes, longer than is typical for many schools. Students no longer have lessons dominated by a teacher writing problems on a white board in front of the class. Instead, they spend more time wrestling with problems in small groups. And, for the first time, children who are behind receive math tutoring during the school day.

Any one of the changes may seem small. But pulling them off required an almost herculean effort and cultural shifts at every level. District officials needed to shake up teaching methods and the school day to maximize instruction time; principals needed to enforce the changes and teachers had to accept having less autonomy.

“In the old way, it was, Open your textbook and sit there and be bored,” said Dan Crispino, the director of school leadership who oversaw changes at Franklin and other elementary schools in Meriden, a former manufacturing town with about 8,500 students in its public schools.

By his own admission, the changes did not always make Mr. Crispino popular.

“They had a wanted sign — dead or alive — for me all over the district,” he joked, though a certain truth remained. After all, he was telling teachers how to do their jobs, sometimes down to the minute.

The results are still early, but Franklin offers a glimpse of just how much it may take to help students catch up amid the pandemic — and how far there is to go.

When federal officials release national test results for fourth and eighth graders on Oct. 24, educators expect to see stark declines from 2019. Even before Covid, American students trailed global competitors in math, and too many children performed below grade level, with alarming gaps in outcomes that often left low-income students and students of color behind.

Today, at Franklin, about 45 percent of students are proficient in math, in line with state averages. Yet an hour south in New Canaan, a wealthier, whiter district with a median household income of about $190,000, elementary students have almost double the math proficiency rate, at about 85 percent. Like other states, Connecticut has significant disparities in school funding that mean Meriden’s spending per student is among the lowest in the state.

“The bottom line is that school districts across the country have their work cut out for them,” said Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of the School Superintendents Association. “We have such a significant achievement gap in performance in this country between the haves and the have-nots, and that gap was made even greater by the pandemic.”

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