Commissioner of Education Ken Wagner and Deputy Commissioner Mary Ann Snider took a field trip to Robertson Elementary School Tuesday afternoon. It was one of about a dozen visits the pair has made to schools across the state so far this year.
It wasn’t long before Snider had one of her “I’ve never seen this before” moments.
It happened in the classroom of Peter Fuller when she asked sixth grader Michael Costa what he was doing with a small map of Rhode Island and his Chromebook. He was using coordinates to locate cities and towns.
“Who would have thought to put geography and math together,” said Snider. In the school visits she and Wagner have made she’s never seen such an application, but then this isn’t the first time she’s been surprised.
At a Barrington sixth grade she met a teacher who applied math to baseball. Relating how a spectator had been hit in the face by a foul ball, she said students calculated the probability of foul balls hitting spectators at different locations from the batter’s box. They then applied this information to major league ballparks across the country and took the step of informing the parks where they should erect fencing to improve spectator safety, she said.
The key takeaway to what she found in Warwick and other schools throughout the state is that students are not just being taught to memorize math but how to use it.
Although the practical application of math varies by district and teacher, Wagner said he is finding “more consensus” in the math curriculum statewide than in the teaching of English. An objective in visiting schools, watching teachers, talking with students and spending time in the classroom is “to get a sense of where schools are.” It’s also to learn what is working and how to improve teaching outcomes throughout the state. .
In the case of Robertson School, Wagner and Snider spent more than two hours in classrooms observing. They didn’t interrupt, nor did they talk with teachers other than to introduce themselves. Accompanying them were Brian Dillon, principal; Nikki Greene, math interventionist and Vanessa Strain, reading teacher.
Wagner said the department is at the point where curriculum is at the center of discussion whereas “it has been at the edges.”
“We want to start a conversation around curriculum, because you’re not going to advance teaching and learning unless we also talk about curriculum. Curriculum is the resources that teachers have to make standards and lessons come alive for kids,” he said.
”So we’re trying to get a sense of where schools and districts are, what the coherence in the approach between different districts and also between schools within those districts and then use that understanding to help advance the curriculum coherence across the state – particularly in our struggling schools.”
Megan Geoghegan, spokeswoman for RIDE said in a follow-up call Wednesday that information gained from the visits would be helpful in reaching policy decisions. She pointed out that the same standards apply to schools although they don’t all use the same curriculum. She said the focus is on quality and how RIDE can be helpful and supportive.
Literacy instruction and middle school math are areas of particular attention as well as Governor Gina Raimondo’s third grade reading challenge, she said. Studies show reading proficiency at third grade is an indicator of whether students are likely to graduate from high school.
Dillon was pleased with the visit.
“What they saw is our kids ready and learning,” he said.