Three Mount Airy Middle School seventh graders found themselves grouped with a newcomer in math class Monday — Catherine Truitt, the state’s education director.
On a tour of the school’s Math and Problem-based/Project-based Learning for Student Success (MAPSS) classrooms, the governor’s advisor sat with Cooper Mauck, Mason Hill and Macey Thomas while the trio worked out a math problem, exemplifying the kind of active learning Truitt had come to see.
The students discussed ways to incorporate a new element — the mathematical properties of multiplication and division — into a math-themed board game design fictionally commissioned by Gov. Pat McCrory and the school board.
Their collaboration impressed Truitt.
“They sounded like a group of adults, having a conversation, trying to solve a problem, and using the vocabulary of math to have a conversation,” she said, later describing the students’ level of engagement as “absolutely incredible.”
Truitt’s visit to the school began with a meeting with administrators and teachers involved with MAPSS.
The director picked the brains of those present, which also included two members of the school board, to determine strategies for implementing “student centered learning” at other schools in the state.
“I have not been to schools in North Carolina that has this heavy of a focus,” said Truitt. “This is how we should teach every day, everywhere.”
She based that opinion on both data showing significant growth where MAPSS is utilized as well as observations in the classroom.
As she walked into Patricia Combs’ eighth-grade Math 1 class, the students sat in pairs working with graphs on open laptops, using technology and each other to solve the problem.
“What’s so amazing about this is you can’t cheat,” Truitt said, explaining that one concern with increased use of digital technology in the classroom is that the students will use the devices to cheat, by looking up answers or texting someone.
The education director perceives those actions differently: as research and collaboration — “two skills we’ve discovered employers want,” she said.
Truitt asked a few students about the graphing during a question and answer session following the tour and was told the project or problem was to map out tours of Mount Airy using the Pythagorean Theorum.
She reflected on her own days as a student to exemplify what she thought was beneficial with the approach.
“I could not give you a real world application of the Pythagorean Theorum,” she said.
The state education director used the panel of teachers and students like a focus group, collecting their impressions about MAPSS as well as education challenges in general.
She said she will make recommendations to the governor and General Assembly regarding funding and legislation in preparation for the upcoming long session of the legislature which begins in January 2017.
One area of interest for Truitt regarded strategies for coming into compliance with new federal regulations that eliminate the A through F rating structure, and possibly developing a way to recognize growth over time instead of only measuring proficiency.
Truitt also asked about ways to develop upward mobility for teachers who want to stay in the classroom, suggesting an “opt-in” system that provides pay raises and stipends for teachers who take on additional tasks, such as MAPSS teacher leaders, as one method.
The panel generally seemed to think that would be a better policy than a pay increases based on growth, but, as Superintendent Kim Morrison said, “we need really great base pay,” in order for any incentive strategies to work.
Truitt said she’s heard similar feedback from most teachers and administrators in the state.
Noting that the base pay increase has raised North Carolina from 47 to 41 in the nation, “we’re not done,” she said. “The message is definitely clear that there’s more work to be done with teacher pay.”
The education director also noted that increased funding to professional learning for teachers is crucial to scale up MAPSS-type curriculum in the state.
“It’s not just about spending money on textbooks that aren’t relevant any more,” she said. “It’s about training teachers, which, as a country, is something we don’t do very well.”
Improving access to technology and broadband internet in schools will also be a priority in the upcoming session, Truitt said.
“She has affirmed what we already know,” Morrison said of Truitt. “If we have an engaged classroom where students love to learn then everybody wins.”
Reach Terri Flagg at 415-4734.