Raising the Bar: How Eureka Math Helped Take High-Achieving District’s Math Instruction to the Next Level
A high-achieving Massachusetts school district is pushing students to go deeper in math with the help of Eureka Math. Westborough Public Schools serves just under 4,000 students in six schools outside Worcester, MA. More than three quarters of students in Grades 3-8 met or exceeded grade level expectations on the school's state math assessment (MCAS). Educators attribute this in part to the use of Eureka Math for the past few years.
Discovering Eureka Math
Jenny Deane, the Grades PK–6 math curriculum coordinator for the district, introduced teachers in Grades 3–6 to Eureka Math during the 2015–2016 school year. Teachers had been using a variety of resources to create lessons to align with the new state math standards but wanted a coherent program for students. Teachers and administrators, led by Deane, explored a range of programs and concluded that although there is no one program that meets the needs of all learners, Eureka Math most comprehensively incorporated features that are critical to effective math instruction, and was by far the best program on the market. Deane said teachers began the transition to Eureka Math after trying out selected modules with students, reviewing teacher feedback, talking with other districts about their experiences, attending a Eureka conference, and reading independent reviews of the curriculum from EdReports.org.
The district began implementing the curriculum comprehensively across Grades 3–6 in the 2016-2017 school year. The program has been so successful that Grades 1 and 2 teachers are now also starting to use selected components with their students. Deane says the positive impacts of the program can be seen in students’ deeper conceptual understanding of how the mathematical processes they use work, their ability to more competently apply their thinking to solve complex math tasks, and the greater perseverance seen in students as they work both independently and collaboratively.
It’s Not a Script
As the curriculum makes clear to all implementers, Eureka Math is not intended to be used as a script. However, in the initial implementation phase, Deane says that many teachers felt they needed to use all the components of each lesson and have students solve all problems. As a result, teachers often spent several days on lessons that were intended to be taught in one day. “Teachers now have a deeper understanding of the goals of the program and are more comfortable making instructional decisions about what is essential, what can be skipped, and how to use the problem sets and homework to differentiate their instruction,” she says.
Deane notes that the emphasis on both conceptual understanding before procedural fluency in the curriculum was a shift for students as well as some teachers. “With Eureka Math, there’s an expectation that students will conceptualize the math they are doing before using an algorithm or memorizing a meaningless set of steps. Students need to be able to explain how and why an algorithm works,” she says. As a result, teachers have had to change some of their long-held assumptions regarding the best ways to teach math.
While teachers experienced struggles expected in implementing any new program, they now have developed greater self-efficacy around Eureka-based math instruction and are excited about the positive impact teaching in this way has had on students. “Our students have a deeper understanding of skills and concepts, they're consistently engaging in higher-level, real-life problem solving and critical thinking, and as a result, teachers have often been surprised by what their students are capable of doing,” Deane says.
Moving into Middle School
Westborough is starting to see the positive effects of Eureka Math as the elementary school students who have been using the curriculum enter middle school. The curriculum is used in Grade 7 and with some Grade 8 students.
“Now that the students are learning the models and strategies in the curriculum earlier, we’re going to see progress,” says Grade 7 math teacher Donna Avery. “What I really like about Eureka Math, and what my colleagues realized too, is that our students aren’t learning to just plug numbers into a formula and compute. They are understanding the 'why' behind what they’re doing in math.”
Avery says the students love the real-world problems in the curriculum, which help students understand not just why the math works but why it is important to be proficient at math. She recently presented a problem that asked students to work in groups to develop the best cell phone plans for their families. “The discussions were fantastic. I was hearing good math reasoning, and they really got the math behind the conversation. I have some English Learners, and they were doing great,” Avery says. “My students understand the math better and can use math language better.”
Right now, most of the district’s Grade 8 teachers don’t rely on a specific curriculum; they pull lessons from different resources. Avery believes that as more elementary students familiar with Eureka Math take their superior math knowledge into middle school, teachers there may find themselves turning to Eureka Math as well.
Math Language and Models
Avery and Deane also like Eureka Math’s focus on math language and models. Avery says developing academic discourse in math class is important, as it improves student learning and helps teachers identify student misconceptions to address in future instruction. Similarly, Deane points to the use of models as a powerful way to reach a range of learners. “The tape diagram helps students analyze and make sense of math problems as they make visible the part to whole relationships. Number bonds and place value disks have greatly aided in the students’ understanding of number relationships and of addition and subtraction, particularly with regrouping,” she says.
Pointing to Helpful Resources
Avery says she uses the Eureka Math Facebook page to connect with other teachers. In addition, she recently had a question about teaching proportional reasoning to students in ways that deepen their understanding of the concept and reached out to and engaged in a helpful conversation with Eureka Math's teacher-writers. She says that this kind of support and collaboration is new and extremely helpful to teachers.
Asked what advice she would give others new to Eureka Math, Deane says the Teach Eureka video series is useful for teachers learning how to support students in conceptualizing, problem solving, and thinking deeply about math. She says the Parent Tip Sheets and Homework Helpers are helpful resources for families.
Deane also says that since the teachers are now in their third year using this program, the focus is shifting toward using small group instruction in order to better meet the needs of all learners. “Using the Eureka Math program in conjunction with a guided math framework is a powerful model which will maximize the mathematical learning and thinking of all students” she predicts.