Distribution of elementary math coaches spurs debate

Monday, July 30, 2007 | 2:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:30 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Columbia - The success of literacy coaches to support teachers in elementary schools led to the hiring of elementary math coaches for the coming year, said Linda Coutts, who coordinates kindergarten through fifth grade math for the Columbia Public School District.

“We have had literacy coaches for eight or nine years now,” Coutts said, “and we have wanted to add math coaches for several years.”

The placement of the coaches was determined by the number of teachers in a school, Coutts said. Mill Creek, Paxton Keeley and Derby Ridge elementary schools will each receive full-time coaches because they have the most teachers per building. The remaining eight coaches will divide their time between two schools, one larger and one smaller. An example of a pairing is Parkade and the smaller Midway Heights elementary schools.

Despite the constant push to increase test scores in the district, scores and students’ proficiency rates were not the main concern when placing coaches.

“The coaches were hired for professional development,” Coutts said. She said the coaches were hired to improve instruction of mathematics for teachers in the classroom, not to tutor students in the classroom.

Along with helping teach the math lessons in the classroom, the coaches will help plan the lessons. Coutts said that periodically, the coaches will take over the classroom to allow math teachers to observe teaching methods in other classrooms or buildings.

Judi Privitt, who will be a full-time math coach at Mill Creek Elementary School in the fall, said the best way to describe her job is co-teaching. For example, she said, “Maybe I will work with teachers after a lesson to debrief on what went well or what didn’t.”

Privitt has taught in the district for more than 20 years and thinks this will help her establish credibility as a coach.

“I’ve been through the trenches and I know what these teachers go through every day,” she said. “Sometimes all you need is a pat on the back.”

Although Privitt is happy with the attention the district is placing on mathematics, parents such as Ines Segert are concerned that the coaches have been placed incorrectly and that lower-performing schools aren’t receiving the instruction they need.

“Math coaches should not be assigned to schools based on population or size, but should be assigned based on need, as assessed by proficiency data,” said Segert, whose two boys attended Mill Creek, where Privitt will work full time. “Schools with very low performance should be given more resources, regardless of whether it is a small school or a large school.”

According to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Web site, 16.4 percent of fourth-graders at Field Elementary scored proficient on the mathematics portion of the Missouri Assessment Program test in 2006; at Parkade, the figure was 14 percent. Both Field and Parkade have coaches who are splitting time between buildings. However, at Mill Creek, one of the schools to receive a full-time coach, the percentage of students to reach proficiency in fourth-grade math was 54 percent.

Privitt supports the district’s placement plan.

“We wanted an equal opportunity for all teachers to have the chance to learn from the coaches,” she said. She said that to make this happen, the number of teachers in a school had to be the main consideration because the focus is on helping the teachers.

However, Segert’s concerns are larger than who goes where; her greater interest is in what they will be teaching. She opposes the curriculum used at the elementary level, called “Elementary Investigation Series,” which teaches that there are many ways to solve problems by incorporating other disciplines.

The controversy, loosely described as integrated math versus algorithmic math, spans the K-12 spectrum. The integrated method’s goal is to teach creative problem-solving and to appeal to a wide array of learning styles. More traditional algorithmic math, on the other hand, sticks to the basics, such as step-by-step problem-solving.

The district maintains that hiring the math coaches is unrelated to the disagreement over curriculum, but Segert thinks otherwise.

“It is extremely disappointing that the school board and administration chose to respond to strong concerns about the existing math curriculum by simply adding a few math coaches rather than addressing the underlying problem,” Segert said. “Adding coaches appears to be a way to avoid dealing with the bigger issue and to avoid a thorough, public and objective evaluation of the curricula.”

As a coach, Privitt thinks the investigations series helps students develop concepts and relationships in mathematics, although she agrees the new methods may frustrate parents.

“I think it is hard for parents to understand,” she said, “because it is not the same type of math they had growing up.”

Privitt added that she welcomes comments and concerns from parents.

“I think the math coaches provide a great opportunity for parents to contact us about concerns,” she said.

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