“Assisting Students Struggling with Mathematics: Response To Intervention (RtI) for Elementary and Middle Schools” is a practice guide posted on What Works Clearinghouse (WWC). As I mentioned in a previous post, WWC evaluates educational programs for their effectiveness. I am impressed with the following 8 recommendations for struggling students. Even those which have the least research to support them were included because they are based “on expert opinion derived from strong findings or theories in related areas and/or expert opinion buttressed by direct evidence that does not rise to the moderate or strong levels.”
The authors emphasize that the core of math intervention should be systematic and explicit, with consistent use of visual representation of abstract ideas.
The greatest dilemma faced by a special education teacher or tutor is how to systematically re-introduce key concepts and still keep pace with the regular classroom. There is no easy solution. For students who are not identified as special needs, but start exhibiting serious difficulties in about third grade, it becomes obvious that their understandings about basic concepts and procedures are extremely weak. For instance, two of my struggling math students (unidentified 4th and 5th graders) have no idea whether their answers are reasonable, regardless of the operation. They simply memorized procedures or facts and achieved a superficial understanding of the concepts being taught. Had there been more cumulative review, consistent evaluation, and greater use of visuals/manipulatives, I believe these kids would not be so seriously adrift. The math program that has been in use in their school for years does not have a strong body of evidence indicating effectiveness, to say the least.
Currently, both kids are taking “body blows” to their self-esteem by continually failing unit tests. They are keenly aware of their limited understanding. An analysis of their errors indicates that they are continuing to learn superficially, with short-term recall of procedures but no deep understanding of what they are being asked or what constitutes reasonableness. For their classroom teachers, who are required to drag the kids forward, this cycle will most likely lead to special education referrals. In that case, the school still struggles with the issue of how to help them “catch up” without missing current instruction (or leaving the classroom, in some cases). Excellent summer intervention is a huge opportunity for these kids to recoup lost ground, but how many families can provide the time and money for that? (My experience with traditional summer school is that the “dragging kids along” process continues, albeit at a slower rate.)
Stay tuned for a closer examination of the practice guide recommendations.