Richmond school board votes to overhaul math, reading and science curricula

After weeks of discussion and controversy, with concerns that teachers could not make necessary adjustments to lessons as they teach, the Richmond school board voted Monday to review its math, reading and science curricula.

Last month — after four hours of public comment and discussion — board member Kenya Gibson’s motion to remove the district’s current materials failed. The next day, Superintendent Jason Kamras said in an email newsletter that teachers would not be disciplined for making adjustments they felt were necessary to meet the needs of their students.

On Monday, a different motion from Gibson regarding the curriculum was passed. He assigned Kamras to form task forces — made up of classroom teachers, subject matter specialists and the district’s executive director of learning and instruction — to review the district’s math, reading and science curricula this year.

The vote comes after an RPS survey of teachers showed they were largely split on whether to keep current teaching materials or use different curricula. However, the majority of teachers who submitted responses to the survey saying they wanted to keep the materials also said teachers should be allowed to make changes if needed.

While 57 percent of responding teachers said they wanted to keep the district’s current Eureka Math curriculum, only 6 percent said it should be unchanged.

“We got 400 responses and only 25 teachers said ‘Let’s stay the course’ [with Eureka Math]Gibson said. “It’s a big deal.”

The effect of Eureka Math on students, teachers

The district piloted Eureka Math in 2018 and 2019, officially adopting it during the pandemic. VPM News produced a 30-minute audio documentary on the 2020 curriculum rollout.

Eureka Math is aligned with Common Core standards and focuses on asking students to explain “why” how they did their work. Often, students produce answers using a variety of visual models, such as number lines, bar charts, number relationships, and arrays.

But that focus on conceptual understanding has drawn criticism from some experts as well as teachers and parents in Virginia and other states. Sydney Bauman, who taught in the district for six years before switching careers in August, said that always making the models takes too much time and overwhelms some students.

“It was a lot to use a whole page to answer your question,” Baumann said. “Because Eureka… they’re not asking a simple question. It’s like you have to take 45 steps to get to one answer. So it was overwhelming for some students to go through this whole process.”

Baumann also said it affected the students’ mental and physical endurance. She said their hands would get tired from so much writing, which prompted her to change the curriculum. Sometimes she asked students to show their work on a few problems, but not all. She did this by multiplying and dividing by 10s.

“There are a lot of kids that once they learn how to do it, they can do it in their mind,” Baumann said. “If we were doing about eight problems, I would require them to show their work for three or four of them. And once I knew they knew what they were doing, they could just write the answer.

But Baumann said it doesn’t make sense to constantly change the curriculum because it’s difficult for teachers.

According to Great Minds, the company that owns Eureka Math, only two districts in Virginia have adopted it so far. The other district is Newport News Public Schools, which adopted the curriculum in 2019.

A spokesperson for Great Minds also told VPM News that both districts received all core professional development and coaching sessions, with Richmond taking part in support sessions.

Richmond Public Schools did not respond to questions from VPM News about curriculum and instruction, including whether all teachers in the district received special training in Eureka Math.

At a training for teachers from other states at Great Minds headquarters in Richmond in July, Nikki Gray wore a T-shirt she and her husband designed that read: “dinosaurs didn’t do math, look what happened to them.”

Gray works for Great Minds and designed the shirt for her colleagues.

“I really like this [Eureka Math] is practical, it’s pictorial,” Gray said.

She trained teachers every month during the last school year at three schools in the Newport News Public Schools; those schools also piloted the curriculum before the pandemic hit, but didn’t get a full year of teaching the new curriculum before going virtual.

“This past school year was really like, ‘Yes’ … we’re actually doing it in front of students,” Gray said.

A person talks to others while in front of a projector
Richmond Public Schools teachers attend Eureka math training in January 2020. (File Photo: Megan Pauly/VPM News)

The district is investigating the impact

It will not be easy for a Richmond district task force to evaluate the effectiveness of Eureka Math without further research.

Although researchers and experts have confirmed that some specific teaching methods—including the use of a number line—are effective in helping students learn math, it is difficult to isolate the effect that a particular curriculum has on student learning.

For example, Eureka Math is on a list of curriculum approved by EdReports, a nonprofit organization that evaluates educational materials. But Tom Loveless, an independent researcher and former director of the Brookings Institute’s Brown Center, said EdReports only measures whether curriculum is aligned with Common Core standards.

“The [curricula] that EdReports ends up endorsing—almost all of them—do not have scientific evaluations,” Loveless said. “If I could wave a magic wand and change their procedures, I would place the highest priority on efficiency and a much lower priority on whether or not it meets Common Core.”

When compared to reading, Loveless said there also isn’t the same solid research on how best to teach math. Research has found that children need to be specifically taught how to associate sounds with letters, otherwise known as phonics.

“Math lags behind reading in terms of literature that is reliable, that is copied,” Loveless said. He added that many curricula adopted in the U.S. in the past 10 to 12 years, such as Eureka Math, place a heavy emphasis on conceptual understanding to align with Common Core standards.

“And in some places, that has led to an overemphasis on conceptual understanding and then a de-emphasis on other aspects of math, such as things like basic arithmetic skills,” Loveless said.

Daniel Ansari, who directs the Numerical Cognition Lab at Western University in Ontario, said that conceptual understanding of mathematics is one of several important factors when it comes to learning mathematics.

“You still have to know how to solve a problem, not just what concept that problem is,” Ansari said.

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