May 10, 2023

Math Program at PPS, Always Controversial, Ready to Forge Ahead

MOTIVATED MATH MAVENS: Fourth and fifth grade students in all four district elementary schools (Community Park is shown here) participated in Continental Math League this year, solving complex math problems and winning recognition. A Math Program Review will be taking place in the Princeton Public Schools over the next six months. (Photo courtesy of Princeton Public Schools)

By Donald Gilpin

With two of the world’s great mathematics institutions in Princeton University and the Institute for Advanced Study, the home of Albert Einstein, and an abundance of other math experts in numerous professions and activities, Princeton is definitely a math hotspot.

“Math has always been a hot topic here,” said Princeton Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Kimberly Tew, who has just launched a comprehensive Math Program Review, which will include surveys and focus groups of students, teachers, and the community, as well as classroom observations and review of professional development offerings, schedules, course sequence, and placement processes. Two Princeton University math professor volunteers are assisting with the professional development review.

“I’ve been told that since the early 1990s, the Math Program has been a conversation point about the Princeton Public Schools (PPS),” Tew continued. Beset by a host of mostly pandemic-related challenges in recent years, including some declining test scores, the PPS Math Program has undergone more than its usual dose of criticism from the community, including concerns about the middle school curriculum and criteria for advanced courses, and complaints about lack of transparency and unresponsive administrators.

Tew and Elementary Education Supervisor Sarah Moore, both new to the district this year, are decidedly not unresponsive administrators. “A 60-hour work week would be a vacation for them,” said PPS Public Information Officer Elizabeth Collier. “You can tell how many things they’ve implemented in the short time they’ve been here. I can’t imagine two people hitting the ground running the way they have.”

Tew and Moore commented on the current state of math at PPS, as the district moves ahead with its program review and its transition to a new supervisor, to be recruited and hired before the start of the next school year.

“We believe every child can love mathematics,” said Tew. “Too often we hear people say, ‘I’m not a math person.’ Even if students don’t love mathematical content, the mathematical practices can be

applied to daily life and any chosen career.”

Tew emphasized the importance of learning to make sense of problems and persevere in solving them, to reason abstractly and quantitatively, and to construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others.

“Our goal is to help students find a pathway that suits their interests and needs and that  fosters a love of mathematics, problem-solving, and critical thinking, no matter what course a student enrolls in,” she said.

Pointing out the wide range of interests and abilities in the PPS student body, Tew added, “For those who need support, we provide PLUS classes in addition to the math course sequence, so students receive targeted instruction to meet their needs. Across K-12, we also have phenomenal special educators, instructional assistants, and ESL teachers who support our students with IEPs, 504s, and other ESL services.”

At the other end of the spectrum, she noted, there are many students who have already taken high school- level courses before they enter PHS, so they go on to a rich variety of high-level math courses, including AP calculus BC, multivariable calculus, AP statistics, and, if they exhaust Princeton High School course offerings, classes at Princeton University.

“We’re a public school that serves very different students along the math continuum of content knowledge and skills,” Tew said. “How can we make sure we’re meeting everybody’s needs? It’s my goal to meet everybody’s needs, including accelerated students, but it might not be to the level that some others in the community might want it to be because we’re constrained by public school resources and options and opportunities. But we’ll get there.”

Moore highlighted a few of the accomplishments in the elementary school math classrooms this year, despite lingering effects of the pandemic. “There are things to celebrate,” she said. “It’s been a full, robust, joyful year at the elementary schools.” 

She explained the math workshop model that elementary teachers have adopted with significant success. “This model allows for direct instruction from the teacher,” she said, “but then breaks off and offers students mini-opportunities to work in student-centered small groups.”

She continued, “So you’re really able to differentiate for your learners who need to go deeper into the curriculum, and you’re also able with that small-group model to scaffold and support students who may need additional help. It keeps the pace moving. The students are highly engaged and we’re very excited about that model for the next school year.”

Moore also described the excitement surrounding the Continental Math League initiated this year for fourth and fifth graders. “It works,” she said. “Students are given very complex, deep math problems to solve. They get practice questions each week, and we have five meets during the year. We’ve had an overwhelming amount of student interest, support, and participation in all four elementary schools. Students are super-excited for next year.”

Tew added, “There’s going to be a great focus on math at the elementary level because so often parents talk about middle school math and high school math, but algebraic thinking and all of the really foundational pieces occur at the elementary level, even in kindergarten.”

Despite a strong note of optimism in all their comments on the Math Program, Tew and Moore did not hesitate to acknowledge the headwinds currently facing this district along with schools nationwide — particularly in the area of lingering effects of the pandemic and staff shortages.

“This is going to be a seven- to 10-year issue,” said Tew, in considering the impact of the pandemic on children’s interrupted learning, levels of stress, and social isolation. “Schools, not just in Princeton, are seeing lower math scores in general because kids missed some foundational pieces or didn’t have as much exposure to content as they would have. These types of things don’t get adjusted in a year.”

She continued, “So what we’ve been trying to work on is resetting classroom expectations for behavior, warm and welcoming classrooms as well as high class expectations and rigor. And we have some students for whom it’s a culture shock.”

Tew also emphasized unprecedented challenges in staffing, particularly in math, science, modern languages, and special education, and especially in finding shorter- term leave replacements. “It’s an extremely candidate-driven job market, and there are very few candidates out there to fill shorter leaves,” she said. “We’ve had to burden our staff with covering extra classes, taking on grading, and more. We hope to have more stability next year.”

Moore pointed out that the aftereffects of the pandemic were especially acute in the elementary grades. “The social-emotional ramifications are still being felt,” she said. “What would have been typical for third graders before the pandemics is not anymore.” 

Tew described a situation of two-year arrested development, “where third graders are acting like first graders, and ninth graders are acting like seventh graders.” 

Moore expressed hope that a more normal year this year will lead to noticeable improvements by next year, but Tew was less hopeful. “We all want to move on,” she said, “but you have to remember that this is something that impacts a whole generation. Some of the things we’re implementing are going to take a few years to come to fruition.”

Tew noted that the first focus groups will meet in person on May 23 at Princeton Middle School from 6 to 7:15 p.m. “We look forward to our Math Program Review to identify areas of strength and areas for growth so that we can set a path for the next three to five years to enhance our practices and improve our curriculum,” she said.