Skip to main content

Carney and Champion receive $1.5M to accelerate math learning for Idaho students

Math learning for K-12 students took a historic hit during the pandemic. According to Michele Carney, College of Education associate professor and interim associate dean, math test scores for many students in Idaho, especially those in rural areas or low-income households, haven’t rebounded since kids returned to the classroom.

To help struggling students as quickly as possible, educators in Idaho say they need tailored strategies that are proven to work in the classroom. With a $1.5 million grant from the Idaho State Board of Education, Carney and Joe Champion, professor of mathematics in the College of Arts and Sciences, will begin work under the Accelerate Math Learning Collaborative. Carney and Champion, along with a team of math educators from Boise State, will partner with schools this fall. Their goals are to support teachers by developing strategies to not only catch students up in math achievement, but to understand and build on what students learn. The grant will also allow the team to hire three regional math specialists to work with schools across southwest and south central Idaho.

“Schools and teachers want more support for envisioning, implementing and evaluating math teaching strategies to identify what works best in their school,” Carney said. “Our team will collaborate with educators, working with teachers on the ground in schools to create tailored plans that accelerate math learning for struggling students.”

When the team from Boise State sent out a call for schools needing support, 81 schools from 34 districts in Idaho applied for help. The funding allows the team to select 27 schools total across rural, suburban and urban areas to visit beginning this fall. The selection process prioritizes geographic diversity, taking into account students’ socioeconomic status to ensure support for students who need the most help. Results and best practices that come from the two-and-a-half year collaborative project can then be made available to schools across the state.

Student success in math better prepares young Idahoans for college and in-demand STEM careers

Math education researchers like Carney and Champion know that as soon as students fall behind in math achievement, they begin to memorize procedures without full understanding. By working with educators to focus on how each student thinks about math conceptually, teachers can support students to learn procedures with comprehension. This supports students to learn more advanced math, preparing them for college and careers in STEM fields.

“Students who struggle with math achievement can have limited prospects for certain career paths,” Carney said. “Some careers that we know are in demand now and will be in the future may become closed off to them. We want all students to have a bright future in college or careers and beyond.”

How students think about math problems can help them advance

Carney explained that two students can work through the same math problem differently, both arriving at the correct answer, yet one approach may better demonstrate conceptual understanding to support learning the next level of math.

Discovering how each student is thinking about a math problem can help teachers steer students who may be struggling toward strategies that will help them build up to grade level and beyond. These in-classroom strategies, tailored to the unique needs of each school’s student population, are what the Boise State team will collaboratively develop along with teachers.

“We know we need highly knowledgeable teachers who are able to elicit students’ understanding in math in meaningful ways,” Carney said. “This project will leverage the existing capabilities of Idaho teachers to teach strategies that work for them and their students, and we will be able to share these strategies across districts in Idaho.”

Associate Professor Michele Carney describes how students think through math problems

Math with Michele

Video Transcript

So in order for students to be successful in college and career in terms of being able to apply mathematics and meaningful ways, we know that they need to understand both the concepts that are embedded in the mathematics and the related procedures. And so one of the things we do in our work is we look at how do we support teachers to do that in their classrooms. And so just an example, the other day I was talking to my nephew – this is an example of of uncovering the concepts a student understands. I was asking him actually, his mom asked him, “What’s 122 plus 37?” And he sat there for a minute and thought about it, and he said, “Well,” – it’s he said, “It’s 159.”And his mom said, “Oh, good job,” and I said, “Well, wait a minute, let’s ask him how he knows that.” And so he said, well, I did 100 plus 20, and then the other one had a 30, so that’s 50. So that’s 150 plus the two and the seven make nine, so that’s 159. And I said, “Oh, that’s awesome.” And what that showed me, if I had been his teacher in the classroom, was that he really understands how to break numbers apart by their place value, and he’s probably ready for that – what we call the standard algorithm, you might think of it as the procedure for adding numbers together. And so he’s ready for that based on what he displayed in terms of his concepts, the knowledge he understood. If a student had said something like, say, he had something more like 122 and then I’m going to add 30 on and that’s 152 and then I’m going to add seven on and that’s 159. That’s fantastic. That’s really good conceptual understanding, but that’s called counting on and it’s just slightly different than being able to break every each digit up by its place value and combining those numbers, both really good, both highly necessary. But one means they’re really ready for the procedure and the other means they may or may not be. And so we just really want to make sure that teachers have that background to really be thinking about what are the slight differences in that conceptual understanding and what is it that we need kids to have to move them to that place of understanding the procedure meaningfully so that it can be built upon in later grades.