It is mid-morning on a warm, spring Wednesday, and Erick Delcham is darting from student to student in his Algebra III class at North Queens Community High School.
Delcham smiles and laughs as he pushes his students to explain how they are trying to answer the problems in front of them.
“Notice what you are doing now?” he encourages a quiet boy named Kuron, who has floated an idea about how to solve a Pythagorean equation. “You are conjecturing!”
Delcham has been teaching math in New York City for 25 years. Until recently, he – like many people – thought that in every class, there are a certain number of students who are simply not “math people” and will never master the subject.
Erick’s views began to change when he and other math teachers at North Queens became part of the Student Agency Improvement Community (SAIC) and learned teaching methods that significantly increased his students’ engagement and proficiency.
The Raikes Foundation provided a grant to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 2014 to establish the SAIC. The goal of the grant is to bridge the gap between cutting-edge research about the science of learning and the day-to-day realities of classrooms, so that many more students succeed.
The SAIC pairs Carnegie researchers and coaches with educators in a diverse mix of schools around the country. They work closely throughout the year to develop, test and refine techniques to help teachers – and their students – implement what researchers have discovered about the optimal ways to help students learn – the development of learning mindsets and skills – things like knowing that their intelligence grows with mental effort; that struggling with a new challenge is normal; when they can relate lessons to their own lives; and when they are shown that people like them belong in school and can be successful.
Students with learning mindsets have confidence in their ability to learn and persist when they face challenges. They see the value in the material they study and strive for growth.
Learning mindsets work hand in hand with educational skills such as time management, goal setting, and knowing when to ask for help. Together, learning mindsets and skills give students the beliefs, tools and habits they need to learn more of the content they are taught, seek out new challenges and persist through them.
Today more than 30 schools from six networks participate in SAIC, which Carnegie describes as a “Networked Improvement Community.” Carnegie applies the principles of improvement science to help SAIC participants rapidly prototype and iterate on solutions to major problems of student underperformance and to reduce inequities in educational outcomes.
North Queens is an especially useful laboratory for testing how to develop learning mindsets and skills to reduce inequities, given the challenges facing its student population. North Queens is one of 50 transfer schools in New York City, which are a “last stop” of sorts for young people the city’s traditional public schools have struggled to serve. Students enrolled in transfer schools are a year or more behind in high school and have a history of truancy. The student body is 35 percent African-American and 35 percent Hispanic, and many are from low-income backgrounds.
“We had a subset of kids that were coming to school on a regular basis but were not making progress in their classes, and we wanted to unpack what was going on,” said Lainey Collins, director of North Queens High School, explaining why she and Winston McCarthy, the principal of North Queens, decided to join SAIC. “We knew it wasn’t an attendance issue and we didn’t really feel like it was an academic skills issue.”
Collins first became interested in learning mindsets and skills after reading about Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset – the belief that a person’s intelligence is not a fixed trait, but is malleable and can increase – and exploring academic and personal behaviors identified by the New York City Department of Education as integral to success, such as persistence and organizational skills.
When Collins and McCarthy joined SAIC, they had a very specific problem they wanted to solve: Low passage rates among North Queens students on New York City’s Regents Exam in Integrated Algebra, which is a graduation requirement.
Prior to joining SAIC, Collins said, only 30 to 40 percent of North Queens students were passing the exam. After introducing interventions to help teachers develop their students’ learning mindsets and skills, the pass rate rose to 66 percent the first year.
“We were super excited but we thought, ‘Well, maybe this is a one-time thing,” said Collins. The next time the test was administered the pass rate was 72 percent, and then it ticked up to 82 percent.
In addition to higher test scores, Collins said, students at the school started approaching math differently. They revised their work more and talked with their teachers more about the feedback they received. They also saw more relevance in their work, thanks to their teachers’ efforts to craft problems that resonate with the students’ daily lives.
Parabijit Kaur, an advocate counselor who works alongside the teachers at North Queens, said making math feel relevant for students is always a tough challenge.
“A student might say, ‘Why do I need to know AX squared plus BX equals C?’ How is that going to help me in the real world?” said Kaur.
So teachers at North Queens started using everyday examples. In one class, students were asked to solve a problem concerning monthly service charges for satellite television service. In another, the teacher crafted math questions related to the financial models of the music industry.
Identifying and testing such subtle changes are core elements of improvement science, and Kaur said they have been key to the academic improvements at North Queens. “Targeting a specific problem and changing what we do about it – that’s how we see progress, little by little,” said Kaur.
Jacob Leon, a 17-year-old student at North Queens, has reaped the benefits. Before coming to the school, Leon said that when he ran into trouble with challenging math problems he “just gave up.” Now, Leon said, his teachers “make the lessons all really interesting.” They also encourage him to keep trying new approaches when he gets stuck.
“It makes you want to answer the questions more and try to figure it out,” Leon said. He is also much more engaged when he is in class. “My mind is completely on my work and nothing else.”
Back in Erick Delcham’s Algebra III classroom, Delcham brings up the very real world issue of the year-end tests that are fast approaching.
“Do you remember what your goal was, to pass the Regents’ exam?” he asks.
“Word,” says Kuron.
“Do you feel ready?” Delcham asks.
“Yeah, thanks to you,” Kuron says with a grin. “I like the way you teach.”
CARNEGIE FOUNDATION FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF TEACHING
Sept 2014 - Oct 2017