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Combating negative math identity: reflecting on the first semester of Colorado Math Corps

A student participant in CYC’s programs.

Math’s unique dilemma

Think back to when you were in elementary or high school. Did you or your friends ever lament that you were just “bad at math” or that you would never understand it? If you have children, do you ever hear them saying the same kinds of things? More than any other subject, math struggles with its ability to engender low self-confidence or even fear in students. Experts in the field refer to this as “math identity.”

The percentage of students who report confidence in or enjoyment of math, and feel able to do things like raise their hand in class, is lower for math than it is for other subjects. Colorado Math Corps members are asked to examine their own math identity during training, digging deep into what challenges and strengths they took note of during their own schooling. In fact, many Colorado Math Corps members say that they decided to serve with the program because they struggled in math themselves at younger ages or did not have enough individual support. These members know from experience that customized support makes a huge difference in students’ success in math.

Bringing Math Support to Colorado

When Colorado Youth for a Change announced that it would enable Colorado to become the fifth state to replicate a math tutoring program with its launch of Colorado Math Corps in fall 2021, Executive Director Mary Zanotti was looking forward to rounding out CYC’s service to the entire educational continuum.

“With the addition of Math Corps, we now serve students from PreK-12th grade and have added another critical intervention point at which we can meet students,” Zanotti said. “Research shows that developing algebra proficiency by the end of eighth grade is a key factor in later school success and eventually graduation, making Math Corps a perfect fit to our other program offerings.”

The timing could not be more apropos as pandemic-related issues have exacerbated Colorado students’ poor results on standardized math testing. The program, which began in Minnesota, delivers evidence-based tutoring to students lagging behind grade level in math. More specifically, Math Corps focuses intently on foundational math skills like whole and rational number understanding, whole number operations, and rational numbers (e.g., fractions). Math Corps adopts a sequential and mastery-oriented approach in which students progress through math concepts at their own speed. Students receive 90 minutes a week of small group tutoring (i.e., 2-3 students) in 30-45 minute blocks. This targeted tutoring helps students to achieve grade level math proficiency by eighth grade.

Progress Report

CYC is currently delivering Colorado Math Corps at 23 middle school sites in 14 school districts across Colorado. Thirty one AmeriCorps members are assisting students with catching up to grade level concepts and improving their math confidence. While progress is measured by frequent assessments and evaluations, the success of Colorado Math Corps in its first semester can be measured in a variety of ways, from students passing a test to learning math manipulatives to exploring different ways to learn math.

“I think math is a journey,” Savannah, a Math Corps member serving in Delta County School District, says. “You learn one concept, you finally get it, and then you can apply it to life. They’re just learning more and more concepts of math and I think the tutoring really helps.”

Now more than ever

Meanwhile, the program has begun at a pivotal moment for Colorado students. In CMAS tests administered this past spring, only 29.5 percent of eighth graders met or exceeded grade level expectations in math. This represented a 7.4 percent drop from the previous test, and declines in math performance were larger for underserved students. In a sobering continuation of pre-pandemic trends, test results for Black and Latinx students were more than 20 percentage points lower on this year’s test. Only 11.6 percent of eighth graders who qualify for free and reduced lunch met grade level expectations.

“These test results give us sobering data that confirm just how hard last year was with school closures, class quarantines, and remote learning,” Colorado Education Commissioner Katy Anthes said in a statement in August. “As students return to school, it is extremely clear that we must accelerate learning more than we have done historically. If we just go back to doing what we have done before, we will not be successful.”

While total participation on this year’s CMAS tests was significantly lower than in the past, which could skew the data, other measures of math performance in Colorado students are reporting the same results. A study released in October by the Keystone Policy Center, a nonprofit research group, found that both test results and achievement measures at the district level confirm Colorado students’ plummeting performance in math. At the same time, Colorado’s teacher shortage is exacerbating the problem; in the 2020-2021 school year, 75 of Colorado’s 178 school districts had openings for 6th-12th grade math teachers.

Many experts point to the fact that students rely almost solely on schools for math education, while literacy assistance is easier to find in out-of-school settings, such as at home. Meanwhile, research shows that when students fall behind in math, it becomes increasingly hard to catch up as time passes. This has dire implications for students’ futures as well as the future of Colorado’s economy. Unless students can develop basic but critical math skills, in-demand and plentiful trade jobs are “out of reach,” Broomfield math teacher Jason Cianfrance told The Colorado Sun.

The bridge

Given the multifaceted burden of recovering from the pandemic, Colorado schools cannot remedy students’ math struggles alone. Colorado Youth for a Change is ready to meet this moment with Colorado Math Corps. In Minnesota, where the original Math Corps program was developed, results from a semester of Math Corps tutoring showed that students who participated in Math Corps achieved 1.5-2 times as much progress as students not participating in the program. CYC will share results of the program at the end of this school year. In the meantime, Colorado schools have shown an increasing enthusiasm to participate. Together, Colorado schools and Colorado Math Corps can bridge the gaps and empower students to develop math skills that will be crucial to their futures.

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