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Richmond School Board votes to review math, reading, science curricula

Richmond School Board member Kenya Gibson attends at 2021 meeting.
Crixell Matthews
Richmond School Board member Kenya Gibson attends at 2021 meeting. Gibson introduced a measure, which was approved Monday, to require the district to review it's curriculum materials for several subjects. (File photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Following weeks of discussion and controversy, with concerns about teachers being unable to make necessary adjustments to lessons while teaching, the Richmond School Board voted Monday to review its math, reading and science curricula.

Last month — after four hours of public comment and discussion — a motion from board member Kenya Gibson to scratch the district’s current materials failed. The next day, Superintendent Jason Kamras stated in an email newsletter that teachers would not be disciplined for making adjustments they feel are necessary to meet the needs of their students.

On Monday, a different motion from Gibson about curriculum did pass. It tasks Kamras with assembling working groups — made up of classroom teachers, subject-matter specialists, and the district’s executive director of teaching and learning — to review the district’s math, reading and science curricula this year.

The vote comes following an RPS survey of teachers that showed they are largely divided on whether or not to keep current curriculum materials or use different curricula. However, the majority of teachers who submitted survey responses saying they want to keep the materials also said teachers should be allowed to make modifications as needed.

While 57% of responding teachers said they wanted to keep the district’s current Eureka Math curriculum, only 6% said that should be without modifications.

“We got 400 responses, and only 25 teachers said, ‘Let’s stay the course’ [with Eureka Math],” Gibson said. “That’s a big deal.”

Eureka Math's effect on students, teachers

The district piloted Eureka Math in 2018 and 2019, formally adopting it during the pandemic. VPM News  produced a 30-minute audio documentary about the curriculum rollout in 2020.

Eureka Math is aligned to Common Core standards and  focuses on asking students to explain the “why” of how they did their work. Often, students draw out answers using various visual models, like number lines, tape diagrams, number bonds and arrays.

But that focus on conceptual understanding has drawn criticism from some experts, as well as teachers and parents in Virginia, and other states. Sydney Bauman, who taught for six years in the district before changing careers in August, said always drawing out the models takes too much time and overwhelms some students.

“It was a lot of using a whole page to answer your question,” Bauman said. “Because Eureka … they don’t ask a simple question. It’s like you have to do 45 steps to get to one answer. So, it was overwhelming for some students to go through that whole process.”

Bauman also said it impacted students’ mental and physical stamina. She said their hands would get tired from writing so much, pushing her to modify the curriculum. Sometimes, she asked students to show their work for a few problems but not all of them. She did that with multiplying and dividing by 10s.

“There are lots of kids that once they learn how to do it, they can do it in their head,” Bauman said. “If we were doing like eight problems, I would require them to show their work for three or four of them. And then once I knew they knew what they were doing, then they could just write the answer.”

But Bauman said it doesn’t make sense to constantly change curriculum because it’s tough on teachers.

According to Great Minds, the company that owns Eureka Math, only two districts in Virginia have adopted it so far. The other district is Newport News Public Schools, which adopted the curriculum in 2019. 

A spokesperson for Great Minds also told VPM News that both districts received all foundational professional development sessions and coaching, with Richmond taking part in sustaining sessions.

Richmond Public Schools did not respond to questions from VPM News about the curriculum and training, including whether all teachers in the district had received training specifically on Eureka Math.

At a training for teachers from other states at the Great Minds Richmond headquarters in July, Nikki Grey wore a T-shirt she and her husband designed that said: “dinosaurs didn’t do math, look what happened to them.”

Grey works for Great Minds and designed the shirt for her co-workers.

“I really like that [Eureka Math] is hands-on, it’s pictorial,” Grey said.

She coached teachers each month during the last school year at three schools in Newport News Public Schools; those schools also piloted the curriculum before the pandemic hit but didn’t get a full year of teaching the new curriculum before going virtual.

“This past school year was really like, ‘Yes’ … we’re actually doing it in front of students,’” Grey said.

District examines impact

It won’t be easy for a district task force in Richmond to evaluate the effectiveness of Eureka Math without further study.

While researchers and experts have confirmed that some specific teaching methods — including the use of a number line — are effective in helping students learn math, it is difficult to isolate the effect a particular curriculum has on student learning.

For example, Eureka Math is on a list of curricula endorsed by EdReports, a nonprofit that rates curriculum materials. But Tom Loveless, independent researcher and former director of the Brown Center at the Brookings Institute, said EdReports only measures whether the curriculum is aligned to Common Core standards.

“The [curricula] that EdReports end up endorsing — almost all of them — do not have scientific evaluations,” Loveless said. “If I could wave a magic wand and change their procedures, I would give effectiveness top priority and whether or not it conforms with Common Core a much lower priority.”

When contrasted with reading, Loveless said there also isn’t the same robust body of research on how best to teach math. Research has found that kids must be explicitly taught how to connect sounds with letters, otherwise known as phonics.

“Mathematics is lagging behind reading in terms of the body of literature that’s reliable, that’s been replicated,” Loveless said. He added many curricula adopted in the U.S. during the past 10 to 12 years, like Eureka Math, place a big emphasis on conceptual understanding to align with the Common Core standards.

“And in some places, this has led to an overemphasis on conceptual understanding, and then a de-emphasis on other aspects of mathematics, such as things like basic arithmetic skills,” Loveless said.

Daniel Ansari, who runs the Numeral Cognition Laboratory at Western University in Ontario, said that a conceptual understanding of math is one of several important factors when it comes to learning math.

“You still need to know how to solve a problem, not just what concept that problem represents,” Ansari said. 

Megan Pauly covers education and health care issues in the greater Richmond region.