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Results of PRIME grant add up

Feb 16, 2018

Elementary schoolchildren grasp complex math concepts through concept-based learning, as several academic studies have shown. It's an approach focusing on student learning through discussions beyond simply solving math problems so that students have the capability to understand the "how" and "why" behind math solutions.

Helping elementary students develop a deeper understanding of math is no easy task, and a critical component to success are the capabilities of their teachers. Enhancing teacher knowledge in math concepts in 16 school districts across San Joaquin, Amador, Stanislaus and Tuolumne counties was the focus of a recently completed two-year collaboration that included University of the Pacific and Teachers College of San Joaquin, part of the San Joaquin County Office of Education. Participants in Partners to Renew and Improve Math Education (PRIME), a professional learning program picked by the California Department of Education Professional Learning Support Division for a $500,000 federal grant, included 37 K-6 teachers and 14 school administrators. 

"The program was designed to facilitate an increase in the teachers' pedagogical content knowledge and to develop their abilities to engage students in mathematical discourse," said PRIME principal investigator Dennis Parker, associate professor of mathematics at Pacific.

Through PRIME, 180 hours of math leadership training was provided the teachers and school administrators at various sessions held at local school sites between March 2016 and December 2017, as well as an immersive two-week summer session hosted by Pacific at the Stockton Campus. PRIME focused specifically on teachers in rural areas.

"Historically, smaller districts in rural areas have had few options regarding mathematics education and professional development," said Sylvia Turner, graduate studies director at Teachers College of San Joaquin. "This project offered a unique opportunity to further teacher education in mathematics, improve leadership, and build a culture of collaboration and networking."

Results from the PRIME program are drawing praise from participants and state officials. "There is evidence to suggest that the PRIME professional learning project was successful based upon multiple indicators," said Rachelle Hackett, professor of education at University of the Pacific's Gladys L. Benerd School of Education, who served as project evaluator on the PRIME team.

"It was a wonderful experience working with a group of very dedicated teachers to build content knowledge across the grade spans and to practice strategies they would bring back to their schools to engage all students in math," said Katherine Burns, coordinator of teacher preparation programs at San Joaquin Teachers College, who served as PRIME grant director. 

She added that some teachers are already supporting their schools and districts with more math leadership, planning and leading professional learning, and through more informal ways such as collaborating with colleagues.

 The results are coming at all levels. "My students are thinking about their thinking and having discourse about math - and I teach kindergarten," said program participant Jennifer Lewicki, a teacher at Soulsbyville Elementary School in Tuolumne County. "It was a wonderful opportunity for me as an educator. The grant afforded me the opportunity to go on and pursue and obtain my math authorization." Lewicki said that PRIME helped to change the way she teaches math by showing her best practices and how to teach students to visualize math, not just memorize algorithms. The program helped her to love teaching math. 

Jeannie Jentzen, a first-grade teacher at Pioneer Elementary School in the Amador County Unified School District, has been teaching for more than 15 years.

"The PRIME program was one of the greatest post-graduate experiences of my teaching life," Jentzen said. "In the program, I experienced mathematics as both a student and a new teacher. Including mathematical problem solving with pedagogy increased my understanding of the struggles my students face and shifted my teaching to a more student-answer-seeking and evidence-based approach. It was fun, too."

The decision for Pacific's Hackett to serve on the grant writing teams came from professional and personal commitments.

"Having been raised in the San Joaquin County, I have many friends and family members with deep roots in this region," Hackett said. Thus, the motivation to work on projects geared at improving their children's lives, by improving teacher quality, here and in neighboring counties, comes naturally. Also, with community engagement identified in recent years as an institutional priority for Pacific, it makes sense for me to more tightly weave together my teaching, scholarship and service towards that end."

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