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Tackling the Mid School Math Cliff

Posted March 13, 2024, 4:10 PM. Updated March 13, 2024, 4:09 PM.

National conference focused on strategies for helping middle school students become better mathematicians.

Educators have long known about a troubling phenomenon when it comes to math.

U.S. students typically score above average on international math tests in elementary school but fall to the bottom tier by ninth grade, explains Megan LeBleu, a former Ernie Pyle Middle School math teacher.

It’s known as the “Mid School Math Cliff,” and it’s an issue 26 Albuquerque Public Schools math teachers and district officials delved into during a recent MidSchoolMath National Conference in Santa Fe.

The training comes as APS strives to make significant gains in its middle school math proficiency rates over the next five years.

“The U.S. decline from fifth to eighth grade is the greatest in the world,” LeBleu said, noting that it affects nearly every district across the country.

Now the director of curriculum for MidSchoolMath, LeBleu said her group’s conference is the only national math conference focused solely on grades 5 to 8, giving participants an opportunity to explore best practices and learn how to best support students at a critical age in their academic careers.

Keynote speakers included Jo Boaler and Kevin Simpson. Boaler is a renowned Stanford professor who specializes in mathematics teaching and learning, including how different teaching approaches impact student learning. Simpson, meanwhile, has been training schools around the world on Common Core math standards for 13 years. Both will also be speaking at the 2024 Inspiring Mathematical Minds Conference being hosted by APS June 10-14.

MidSchoolMath, a company that creates curriculum for school districts, emphasizes the importance of engaging students by bringing math lessons to life, such as real-world math problems individuals planning to climb Mount Everest would need to solve, illustrated by video. While APS uses Illustrative Math rather than MidSchoolMath, the conference was a stand-alone professional development opportunity broadly focused on math education and not the company’s curriculum.

“The session provided options and resources for teachers to think differently about teaching mathematics,” said Theresa Ambrogi, an APS teacher support specialist who also attended the conference. “We have a curriculum that has been adopted, but ultimately the responsibility of teachers is to teach the common core state standards. The sessions in this conference provided our teachers with ways to teach the common core standards that make learning fun for students and engage them in discourse and curiosity around mathematics.”

Following the conference, one APS teacher said she was looking forward to helping students develop their mathematical identity, identifying and addressing their beliefs about themselves as mathematicians, dismantling any negative stereotypes, and instilling a sense of mathematical self-worth.

“When students feel good about themselves in math class, they engage and take risks, diving deep into assignments, exploring multiple solution pathways, and valuing multiple perspectives,” LeBleu said. “All this leads to a richer understanding of math – and improved scores.”

While APS covered registration fees for the Santa Fe conference, teachers attended the Saturday sessions on their own time, and they covered their own travel costs and food for both days of the conference.

“For those teachers who were able to take advantage of this opportunity from the Curriculum & Instruction department, it definitely shows their dedication to refine their craft and strive to do better for their students,” Ambrogi said.

“It was a great time for all of us to build connections,” she added. “We had a great group of teachers, and having the opportunity to learn side-by-side with our Curriculum & Instruction team was invaluable. We ate together, laughed together, and did math together – it was a great two days of learning.”