Can positive student-teacher relationships improve math scores?

Pittsburg Post Gazette

More information on the importance of creating connections with students.
December 29, 2014

By Eleanor Chute / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
If a teacher goes to a student’s basketball game, will that help the student do better in math?

It might.

With a National Science Foundation grant, Pittsburgh Public Schools has embarked on an effort to develop positive student-teacher relationships to help every student learn math. The goal is to reduce the gap in student achievement, sometimes called the racial achievement gap or the opportunity gap.

The project is called DEbT-M, which stands for Designing for Equity by Thinking in and about Mathematics. It is funded by a nearly $8 million, five-year NSF grant. The project lead is the nonprofit Education Development Center, based in Waltham, Mass. Also participating are the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. Duquesne University serves as the outside evaluator. Teachers are paid $30 an hour, up to 220 hours a year, for extra work.

In the summer, 35 teachers took part in professional development and this fall they began bringing the program to their classrooms. The practices are designed to work in any math curriculum.

The teachers are from 13 schools: Pittsburgh Brashear High School in Beechview; Carrick High School; Perry High School on the North Side; CAPA 6-12, Downtown; Obama 6-12 in East Liberty; Westinghouse 6-12 in Homewood; South Brook 6-8 in Brookline; South Hills 6-8 in Beechview; Colfax K-8 in Squirrel Hill; Faison K-5 in Homewood; and the Student Achievement Center in Homewood.

Tracy Johns, project manager for DEbT-M in the district, said the project looks at where math and educational equity for students intersect. “That’s our overarching question. What does that actually look like? How does culture play a part in what we see?”

She said that when children are not comfortable with their own identity in a classroom, “It lessens them as a learner.”

Some students may come to class with a negative attitude toward math, she said, sometimes from parents who themselves struggled with math.

There may be unconscious bias from the teacher, said Eden Badertscher, former math supervisor for Pittsburgh Public Schools and now a senior project director at Education Development Center.

She said a teacher might talk to an African-American or Latino student who is struggling and suggest an “easier” problem. But this may convey a message that the student doesn’t need to be challenged.

That bias is particularly damaging in math because “math has been used more than any other subject as the gatekeeper or people saying, ’I’m not good at this,’ ” Ms. Badertscher said.

The emphasis of DEbT-M is on teacher development. Ms. Baderscher said the title reflects that “we owe our kids an education debt. The kids aren’t the ones that are underperforming. It’s the system, and it’s all of us that are essentially underperforming.”

Many of the participating schools are focusing on building student-teacher relationships as a way to help engage students, including South Brook where Rosemary Schmitt, eighth-grade algebra teacher; Bill Wolf, seventh-grade math teacher; and Cynthia Fisher, a special education teacher who teaches math in grades 6,7 and 8 are participating.

In Ms. Schmitt’s room, one wall displays the calendar for school and outside activities her students participate in under the title “Come Watch Us Play.”

Ms. Schmitt has gone to the basketball games of eighth-grader Daniel Antantis of Carrick. Asked about the impact of teachers attending his games on his algebra, Daniel answered, “It’s always better to have support. They recognize I’m doing something I love and support me through it and are cheering me on to do better.”

In teaching the math, Ms. Schmitt said the approach considers each student as an individual and encourages them to feel part of a community.

“I’ve gotten to know my kids. My connections are deeper,” Ms. Schmitt said.

Each math student has a notebook made of graphing paper, not lined paper, so they are always ready to graph. Ms. Schmitt hands out lesson plans in advance so students are ready to start when they enter the room. Students take ownership of their work. Her posted list of classroom expectations includes “laugh” and “be helpful.”

On an in-service day for all teachers before the start of school, the three teachers organized a scavenger hunt for their school’s staff in the neighborhoods served by South Brook. On the hunt, teachers had to visit community landmarks and take selfies. A bulletin board in the office shows pictures of the teachers out and about in students’ neighborhoods.

“The stronger relationship you have with the students a lot of the time motivates the student to want to do well in your class,” said South Brook principal Jennifer McNamara.

Education writer Eleanor Chute: echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.

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