Recent national test data paint an alarming picture of middle school math achievement post-Covid, with eighth grade math scores on the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) having the largest decrease of any other subject or grade.
As a former math interventionist for fifth through eighth graders, I am well aware of the challenges that accompany the more rigorous middle school math material. Curriculum for these grades is geared toward developing more sophisticated reasoning skills, and many students struggle to adjust to this new level of difficulty—alongside the many other challenges that a typical junior highschooler faces.
Districts have been pouring time and resources into various middle school math interventions for decades, but we haven’t seen big gains in this subject in these grades. Is there a cost-efficient way to actually improve these students’ math outcomes?
A recent study analyzes a four-year math intervention program called Changing the Odds (CTO) designed by local policymakers, math specialists in the San Diego Unified School District, and a team at the University of California San Diego. It was implemented in four low-performing schools in San Diego, and emphasizes continuous improvement, data-driven decision making, and professional learning communities (PLCs)—collaborative groups of teachers who share best practices across schools.
One of CTO’s primary tenets is the use of diagnostic testing and formative assessments to track student progress. All district teachers received assessments from the Mathematics Diagnostic Testing Project, but those participating in the program received additional training on how to best use the data. They were also encouraged to provide multiple formative tests and daily learning checks throughout the year to gauge comprehension.
Then in same-grade PLCs across the four schools—a second tenet of the program—teachers used student data to identify gaps in learning and adjust their upcoming lessons. PLCs occasionally met for day-long planning sessions where they analyzed student data and collaborated on upcoming lessons, while a substitute teacher covered the classes of attending math teachers.
The last major component of the CTO program was a grant-funded resource teacher who worked with the math teachers in all four schools on curriculum and pedagogy. In the first year, the resource teacher worked out of the district headquarters and would visit the schools individually. But in years two, three, and four, the resource teacher rotated among the four schools full-time, designing lessons with teachers and co-teaching classes.
Researchers at UCSD used a difference-in-difference analysis to compare the change in math achievement in the four CTO schools to the change in four academically and demographically similar schools from the same district. On average, they found that there was a statistically significant increase (0.11 standard deviations) in math achievement for CTO students, compared to the control students—which translated to an increase of over 4 percentile points per year on the math standardized test.
Even more interesting is the program’s affordability. The total yearly cost of the program was estimated to be just over $200,000, including various labor expenses, supplies, and the resource teacher’s salary. Divided amongst the four schools, the additional cost of $50,000 for each was about half of the average full-time teacher’s salary, or less than 1 percent of the school’s total personnel salaries.
Many district leaders might roll their eyes when they hear that they should be implementing the latest new middle school math intervention program, and understandably so—they’re a dime a dozen. But this program is not reinventing the wheel. Prior research tells us that data-informed teaching, collaborating with peers, and having an additional resource teacher will lead to increased achievement. But this study shows skeptics that all of these things can be done in a cost-efficient way.
We must also recognize, however, that not every district has a local university willing to throw its time and resources at the local public schools. Additionally, the sample size in this study was small, so results cannot be generalized. For districts that do have the opportunity to partner with outside organizations, though—such as testing companies and universities—and for middle schools whose teams want to find a way to improve their math achievement without breaking the bank, a program similar to Changing the Odds could be a sustainable option.
SOURCE: Betts, Julian R., Andrew C. Zau, Karen Volz Bachofer, and Dina Polichar, Changing the Odds: Student Achievement After Introduction of a Middle School Math Intervention, National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper (January 2023).