Problem Solved: In Four Years, One Boston School Nearly Doubled Its Passing Rate in Math. Find out How They Did It

By Pascopella, Angela | District Administration, April 2003 | Go to article overview

Problem Solved: In Four Years, One Boston School Nearly Doubled Its Passing Rate in Math. Find out How They Did It


Pascopella, Angela, District Administration


A 3-year-old sat on the lap of his mother, who was visiting Richard Murphy Elementary School in Boston. Principal Mary Russo couldn't help watching the child, fascinated with how the boy kept peering to the ceiling.

"We have block ceilings, and his eyes were shifting up and down and from right to left," Russo says with a laugh. "I bet that child was counting [the blocks]. I'm not sure, of course. But he was seeing a pattern. It was really quite amazing. And as a teacher, it's your job to find out what children know and what they need to learn to be proficient."

The idea that children come to school with mathematical thinking already ingrained is nurtured through a new math program at Murphy as well as other Boston public schools. This program encourages students to continue to think on their own. And while all Boston schools are using the new program and are enjoying rising math scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exam, Murphy is the most successful. These results are noteworthy because the public school has two bilingual populations and has 85 percent of its students in free or reduced lunch programs.

In 1998, 46 percent of students at the school passed math on the MCAS test. In 2002, 84 percent passed. The percentage of students working at proficient and advanced levels on standards-based assessments has risen. In 1998, 12 percent of students were proficient compared to 27 percent in 2002. In 1998, 8 percent were advanced compared to 15 percent in 2002, Russo says.

With the U.S. is struggling to maintain homeland security and boost its economy, the nation's schools are straggling to juggle budget cuts with improving academics. Disheartening news is that the nation's eighth-graders lie near the middle in math achievement, according to the 1999 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, formerly the Third International Mathematics and Science Study. Out of 38 countries, U.S. eighth-graders in 1999 were 19th with a 502 average score as opposed to Singapore's 604.

Mathematics learning and achievement may be in crisis in some areas of the nation, says Johnny Lott, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. "Crisis situations occur in schools in exactly the same ways that they occur between countries--when there is a lack of communication and trust," Lott says. "In such school situations, there is an obligation for both parties [schools and families] to make the effort and learn and understand why the situation exists, and what can be done to improve it."

TERC's Investigations in Number, Data and Space is a math curriculum program based on national standards and developed with classroom teachers. As an activity-based program, it encourages students to think creatively, develop their own problem-solving strategies and work cooperatively.

It also empowers students in that they use their own thinking to solve a problem. Teachers later ask them how they devised their solution instead of simply giving them a formula to follow and memorize.

Many attribute Murphy's success to strong leadership and dedication from Russo to give teachers support and the freedom to leave the classroom to attend professional development.

"Mary is exceptionally committed and exceptionally devoted," says Sid Smith, director of curriculum and instruction in the Boston district.

After visiting Murphy School, Lott says, "It's a pretty impressive place." The outside of the building looks "beaten and banged," he adds, but "when you walk inside it's a very different feeling. It's refreshing.... The teachers were supported. The kids appeared to be learning. I just liked the way Mary Bus,so has used aides and groups of people to help those kids."

Murphy is one of six Learning Site Schools in the district, meaning other district teachers and administrators visit to learn how to implement a successful program. …

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