Helpful Steps To Reverse Math Declines For Students With Disabilities

May 28, 2024 2:03:22 PM


Helpful Steps To Reverse Math Declines For Students With Disabilities

Now that we're closing in on the end of the school year, we've been reflecting on what we've seen in classrooms across the country and where, as educators, we ought to put our collective focus going forward. There's no question that math must be at the top of our improvement agenda and central to summer school programs and planning for next year.

Students nationwide experienced historic declines in math on the most recent Nation's Report Card, and many schools are still behind where they were before the pandemic upended education. U.S. students also saw big score drops in math on a key international test.

These losses are evident across student groups but are especially apparent for students with disabilities, whose scores were already lagging before the pandemic upended education and exacerbated achievement gaps. 

As math educators and curriculum writers focused on accessibility and moms to kids who’ve experienced learning challenges, this is personal to us. At our kitchen tables, in our classrooms, and visits with teachers and students around the country, we've seen firsthand how diverse learners can succeed with grade-level content when the right strategies are in place. 

Recently, we were reflecting on critical career experiences that helped us understand how to make rigorous math instruction engaging and accessible for all students, including those with disabilities.

Mary was a math consultant who helped third—through fifth-grade teachers in northern Michigan uncover why some students were succeeding in learning concepts about fractions while others were not. After observing the teachers deliver lessons, she saw they tried different approaches with varied success.

Mary then facilitated professional learning focused on getting the teachers to prioritize using concrete and visual models when teaching fractions, as they help students develop a conceptual understanding of math topics. The teachers subsequently reported that student achievement and engagement grew in their classrooms.

Maureen had a similar experience early in her teaching career. After attending a training about meeting the needs of all learners, she made changes in her fifth-grade classroom, including dedicating more time to student discourse.

With discussion a more regular part of math class, her students became better problem solvers—learning from each other's ideas and building and deepening their understanding of math concepts. When we visit math classrooms today, we always listen to what students say—also a good idea when considering how to improve the math curriculum. When the room is quiet, we get concerned.

These “Ah Ha” moments cemented our commitment to ensuring all learners get high-quality, grade-level math instruction. Within a general education classroom, teachers can take steps to ensure that no one is left behind. These strategies are great for all students but are particularly useful for those with learning disabilities. Challenges related to memory, attention, processing, reading, and metacognition—how kids approach problems and pick strategies for solving them—can impact math learning. All of these contribute to how they feel about math, which is also critical.

The research-based strategies listed here have worked well in elementary classrooms, but variations of these approaches may also be helpful for older students.

  • One strategy teachers can use is to activate students' prior knowledge or start a lesson with a concept students know before diving into something new. That increases engagement and helps students see connections between topics. For example, before engaging fourth graders with new learning about adding and subtracting fractions and mixed numbers, it’s helpful to activate students’ prior knowledge about the meaning of vocabulary associated with fractions, such as numerator and denominator.
  • Finally, it's helpful for teachers to provide concrete or visual representations for math concepts and multiple methods for solving problems—the idea Mary worked on with educators in Michigan. You can bundle sticks to help students understand place value or that 10 ones make one ten. Concrete models and drawings can be used to solve a problem. The number bond, for example, is an example of a visual model that uses circles and lines to show part-whole relationships.
  • It's also important to use clear and concise language in math lessons. For students needing language support, like those with dyslexia or other reading-related disabilities, overly complex vocabulary or sentence structure can be unnecessary barriers to solving world problems. This became apparent to us when a sixth-grade student in the Detroit area, Mya Gooden, urged our organization to make an early version of our math curriculum more readable.
  • In addition, students need enough time to practice and absorb what they learned in a lesson. So, if a teacher leads a lesson on a core concept in math, it's vital to give kids the chance to engage in tasks related to that concept after the lesson. We believe in the 10:2 principle, meaning that for every 10 minutes a teacher talks, students need 2 minutes of interactive time to apply and practice what they've learned. 

There are other steps teachers can take to ensure students with disabilities can succeed in a general education classroom. Still, we've found the approaches outlined here to be among the most effective. 

Closing the gap between students with disabilities and their peers and getting all students to recover from lost learning in math will take hard work and sustained efforts. We have the tools to meet these goals. We just have to ensure they're well-understood and widely used.

Mary Christensen-Cooper and Maureen McNamara Jones

Mary Christensen-Cooper and Maureen McNamara Jones are lead curriculum designers with Great Minds PBC. Both are moms of four children. Mary previously taught middle school math and was a regional mathematics curriculum specialist. Maureen taught at the elementary level and was a Program Coordinator/Instructor at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Technology in Education.

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