Floridian of the Year 2019
Challenges of teaching math in Florida schools
‘Everybody can do math,’ says Samantha Neff, who shares her methods with other teachers.
A week before the start of the 2017- 18 school year, Samantha Neff got a call from her principal, Lenore Logsdon. Logsdon wouldn’t be returning to Highlands Elementary in the Orlando suburb of Winter Springs, where Neff was a math coach. The district had asked Logsdon to take over Idyllwilde Elementary, a struggling school nine miles north in Sanford, and she wanted Neff to join her there.
Idyllwilde is a Title 1 school that was among the 300 lowest-performing elementary schools in the state. It had received a D grade two years in a row. Logsdon, who was spearheading Idyllwilde’s turnaround plan for the district, had just fired 19 of the school’s teachers and wanted Neff to make sure the school’s remaining teachers and those who’d be joining the staff could teach math. “It was intense,” Neff says.
Born and raised in Seminole County, Neff credits her own math prowess to Mike Gaudreau, her algebra teacher at Lake Mary High School. She had struggled with the subject in middle school. “He taught me different strategies, and I ended up loving math.”
Today in Florida, there are fewer Mr. Gaudreaus to go around. Florida has a critical shortage of math (and other) teachers, and school districts are putting more teachers uncertified in their field in the classrooms. In the 2017-18 school year, roughly one out of every 14 math classes in the state was taught by a teacher not certified in math.
Adding to the problem, says Neff, is the fact that many teachers aren’t confident in their math skills. Most were taught “memorization and rules, so if you don’t know that, you don’t know it.”
Neff tries to combat math anxiety by teaching problem-solving techniques that build mathematical confidence and understanding. It’s a myth that some people are more math-minded than others, she says: “Everybody can do math.”
Launching into an impromptu arithmetic lesson, Neff fetches a bucket of blue plastic “base-10” blocks that she uses to demonstrate different ways to think about the simple addition problem of adding 25 and 37. Rather than simply lining up the integers and adding vertically, students, via the blocks, learn a different way of grouping and combining numbers.
Neff also uses the blocks to teach fractions, decimals and other concepts. She uses other strategies as well, including memorizing doubles. A student may not be able to memorize all the results of adding single digit numbers and can’t remember, for example, that 8 plus 7 equals 15. But if the student memorizes doubles and knows that 7 plus 7 is 14, she can just add one and get to the correct answer. The goal is “math fluency” — the ability to solve a problem within three to five seconds, Neff says.
Parents raised on rote memorization don’t always understand the newer approaches, however, and some even take to Facebook to complain. “We try to tell them, don’t teach your kids your tricks,” Neff says. “We’re eventually going to get to the most efficient way to add” but the “standard algorithm” of lining up the numbers vertically on paper isn’t taught until fourth grade, she explains. Using the blocks gives young learners a clear and conceptual picture of math. It teaches them how to look at numbers flexibly and how to use creative methods to solve problems. “We need problem- solvers because our computers do everything for us now.”
Neff has a degree in early childhood development and education from the University of Central Florida and taught primary grades for about a decade before becoming a math coach. A typical day finds her meeting individually with teachers, brainstorming with them over lesson plans and helping them hone their teaching techniques. She also develops assessments to track kids’ math progress and regularly walks through classrooms, intervening when she needs to. “There are times you see things being taught wrong, and I will jump in and I will go teach,” she says. “If I see a kid struggling, sometimes I’ll just sit and try to work with a student.”
Idyllwilde’s challenges run deep. The school grapples with poverty, hunger and chronic absenteeism. More than 85% of the school’s 786 students come from economically disadvantaged households. Some students are homeless. Others have parents in jail. Idyllwilde operates an on-campus food pantry called the Kindness Cottage. It sends kids home with about 80 food bags every week — many students wouldn’t eat without the help.
Student behavior can also be a problem. In 2015, according to the latest available data from the U.S. Department of Education, 78 students received inschool and out-of-school suspensions, and two students were referred to law enforcement. “All teachers have to work hard, but the teachers here have to work even harder,” Neff says.
Neff’s day doesn’t end with the dismissal bell. Planning meetings can drag into the early evening hours, and she’s used to getting texts from her colleagues asking advice about everything from lesson plans to how to handle a parent-teacher conference. As a coach, she welcomes the requests. It’s all about building relationships with the teachers and increasing their comfort level so they’re excited to teach math, she says.
There are other changes afoot at the 50-year-old school. With state and federal grants, the county has begun transforming Idyllwilde into a Future Ready Academy, a magnet school focused on fostering leadership and life skills. As it forges its new identity, the school has received new carpet, new furniture, new technology and colorful murals. “It’s now this wonderful learning environment that’s inviting, and the kids are excited,” says Neff.
Academic improvement at Idyllwilde has been modest and incremental. Math achievement scores improved from 42% in 2016-17 to 46% in 2017-18 to 48% in 2018-19. Overall “learning gains” in math — one of 11 components the state uses in assessing schools — rose from 38% to 50% to 54% over the same period. Math learning gains among the lowest-performing quartile of students went from 27% to 43% to 53%.
With those scores and improvements in English and Language Arts, Idyllwilde inched up to an overall C grade in 2018 and maintained its C in 2019. Neff, honored as Seminole County’s Teacher of the Year in 2018, is disappointed that the school didn’t do even better. “We all worked so incredibly hard. The fact that the scores came out and we were still a C, it was so deflating.”
Neff says the focus now is on closing the achievement gaps for students who’ve been at Idyllwilde for several years and didn’t have a great foundation to begin with. This year, she’s taken on the additional duties of being a reading coach. She believes Idyllwilde can eventually achieve an A. “Now that we have teachers who want to be here, it’s truly evolving,” she says.
After 19 years of teaching, Samantha Neff earns $53,000 a year. She also works a side gig, speaking about math instruction at development workshops for educators, and she writes books about teaching math. “I have a kid in college. I have one going to college next year, and I have one going to college two years after that. How do you keep up?” she says. A recent study by Pew Research Center found that 18% of teachers work second jobs during the school year, with those earnings making up about 9% of a teacher’s annual income. Neff has friends who teach kindergarten by day and wait tables at night. Others work retail. The moonlighting also impacts the students. “We want to do tutorials after school. Well, trying to get teachers to stay after for the little amount they get (is hard),” she says.
Read more in Florida Trend's December issue.
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