Despite using federally funded math coaches, Concord test results are mixed

Rundlett Middle School, looking down a hallway of sixth-grade classrooms, in August 2016.

Rundlett Middle School, looking down a hallway of sixth-grade classrooms, in August 2016. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff file


Monitor staff

Published: 05-19-2024 1:00 PM

Modified: 05-20-2024 2:23 PM

It was supposed to be a yearlong effort to help blunt and ultimately reverse pandemic-related learning loss in math.

Using relief funding from the federal government, the Concord School District pulled six expert math teachers from their classrooms in fall 2021 and anointed them “math coaches.” Their job was to be multi-faceted: it would involve coaching fellow math teachers on best teaching practices, analyzing and tracking performance data, and working closely with individual students. 

After a year, the district elected to keep the coaches on – ultimately for two more years. 

But this spring, the program will end. In March, Concord’s School Board rejected a proposal made by district administrators to add three “math interventionists” – a more student-facing role – to the district’s operating budget for next year, and voted instead to retain only one, who will be assigned to Rundlett Middle School.

“The math coach positions were never planned to be a long-term, sustainable coaching kind of option for the district,” Brenda Hastings, the school board’s vice president, said. “It was always a short-term intervention that we had hoped would help us catch up as quickly as we could, as well as provide us with information about what we needed to do in the future.”

Peer teacher coaching has been shown to be effective but has also at times generated criticism because the model pulls the teachers who are often most gifted away from the classroom full-time. 

What did Concord’s math coaches do?

Unlike the other math coaches, Chris Demers did not come from the classroom – at least not directly. For two years, Demers, who has worn a range of hats during a three-decade career as an educator and administrator, took leave from his position as Concord’s assessment coordinator to serve as the math coach at Beaver Meadow School.

In that role during the 2021-22 and 22-23 school years, Demers said he spent about one-quarter to one-third of his day working with small groups of students who needed additional instruction, and the rest of the time either meeting with teachers individually or in groups, co-teaching lessons, or collecting and analyzing performance data from students.

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In the classroom, math coaches either observe the teacher, spot-teach a lesson, or engage in some combination, according to Kimberly Yarlott, the district’s assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and assessment.

The data collection and analysis has been both quantitative and qualitative. Concord has expanded its reliance on a program called i-Ready, a thrice-yearly assessment system administered to students in grades four through nine.

Demers said though that some of the most actionable data has come out of directly reviewing individual students’ work. A lot of that occurs in professional learning communities, biweekly or monthly meetings for teachers across a grade level led by math coaches.

Developing and implementing systems for data collection and presentation have also occupied a portion of the math coaches’ time, said Yarlott. Three times a year, district leaders visit each building and conduct what they call a “data dive,” which involves analyzing the data collected through i-Ready.

“The math coaches were responsible for showing us the math data and so we could see at the very beginning how many students were below proficiency and then we could look at their growth based on mid-year data and then end-of-year data,” Yarlott said.

Citing student privacy concerns, district administrators declined multiple requests from the Monitor to observe a math coach in action during any portion of their day.

Did the math coaches’ work make a difference?

The percentage of Concord students who failed to score proficient on the math portion of the SAS rose 21 points from 2019 to 2021, from 52% to 73%, a trend mirrored across the state and country. By last year, the most recent year data is available, that percentage had dropped by only five points, to 68%.

By those data points alone, Concord’s students have failed to recover from the pandemic.

“We’re not proud of this data at all,” Yarlott said at a school board budget session in February.

But, district leaders and experts contend, the SAS test data does not tell the whole story.

“It’s a measure of that day, that environment, that desk, that’s how well you do math today,” school board member Sarah Robinson said.

Yarlott said the i-Ready data is more promising.

Last school year, the percentage of students performing at or above grade level more than doubled from the fall to the spring assessment, rising from 16% to 33%, according to data provided by the district.

Yarlott acknowledged however that it’s impossible to know to what extent the math coaches are responsible for the improvement.

“Is it because they have the coaches? Who knows,” she said. “But have our scores been rising? Yes.”

Both Yarlott and Demers said much of the math coaches’ impact cannot be quantified through assessment data.

 “The job of teaching can be very isolating,” Demers said. “You’re trying to figure out what’s going on in the brains of a lot of individual students, and anytime you have an opportunity to collaborate with somebody else, I think it’s helpful.”

What will happen to math coaches’ work next year?

Incorporating three math interventionists into the district’s operating budget would have cost $352,635 next year, a price tag the board decided it could not stomach in the face of other rising expenses.

While the professional learning communities and data collection and analysis that the math coaches have led will continue, it will fall to the classroom teachers and elementary school math facilitator Chantel DeNapoli.

DeNapoli, who has been in her role for 10 years, said part of the coaches’ job has been to develop systems that will make this transition easier.

“There’s a lot of things that coaches have done that really will make a lasting impact, which was the original intention of bringing them in for a short term,” DeNapoli said.

Still, Yarlott acknowledged, it is impossible to replicate all of the work the coaches did.

“The teachers became very reliant on the math coaches for that data collection and for helping with students in the classroom when they could, so it’s a support system that’s going to be taken away,” Yarlott said.

At the same time as Concord’s math coaches return to their old positions, the district is in the process of transitioning to a new math curricular program for the first time in a decade. The new program, called i-Ready Classroom Mathematics, was selected from a range of options piloted this year, Yarlott said. 

The new program, which replaces Everyday Mathematics, will centralize resources teachers rely upon, said Hastings, the school board’s vice president.

“It just met more of the needs so that our teachers aren’t trying to piecemeal all of the different needs,” said Hastings, a retired third grade teacher at Broken Ground School.

She is confident that, even without the coaches, the district is on the right path toward full recovery in math education.

“Our staff is very smart, they’re very capable, and they’re very dedicated, and I have no doubt that they will handle this,” Hastings said. “We've never had math coaches in Concord before. They were a short-term tool to help us figure things out.”