In the fight against students’ learning loss, numerous states and school districts have implemented new curriculum in reading and math, bringing fresh urgency to another important issue that needs to be tackled post-pandemic: educating the educators. 

Since 2021, 23 states have switched their reading instructional style to the science of reading, according to a count by Education Week. And California, the nation’s largest state, has adopted a controversial new math framework that switches what math is taught in different grades. 

While these new strategies could be useful tools against decades of progress lost in reading and math, educators are going to need time and resources to learn how to properly implement the changes in order for them to work, according to experts.

“We are grateful that districts are revisiting curriculum, but there’s another under-addressed or under-appreciated component of this equation, which is getting from the what we are teaching to the how we are teaching it,” said Chase Nordengren, principal research lead for Effective Instructional Strategies at NWEA, an educational research organization. 

While many of these curriculum changes have been in discussion for years, the pandemic propelled officials to move forward — and the relief money schools have received from the federal government is fueling multiple lesson plan transitions.

The science of reading, for example, is an approach to teaching literacy that focuses on phonics, or sounding out words and knowing what sounds certain letters make together. It is replacing the long-used balanced literacy, which focuses on a “whole language approach” that teaches larger sounds and speech.

Nordengren said the school districts his organization works with are asking educators to “go through several hours of professional learning around the core principles of the science of reading and some of those things they might have not gotten as much of in teacher education.”

The State University of New York at New Paltz is launching Science of Reading Fundamentals cohorts this fall to help educators learn the pillars of the method, which will be used across New York City’s 32 school districts.

“The microcredential at New Paltz will empower teachers with the knowledge and information needed to more effectively administer the educational programs within their school districts,” Sarah Holbrook, instructional leader in the Middletown City School District and co-creator of the microcredential, said in the program’s announcement.

The ability to get these changes implemented takes time as educators will have to learn how to teach this new method on top of all the other responsibilities they have during the school year.

“This is an important time to make that shift happen because we know there are better ways to teach kids to read. But we also have to have the hold the expectation that it’s going to take a little while to build trust with educators to help them understand why these approaches that are based in science are better and more effective,” said Benjamin Powers, director of the Global Literacy Hub at the Yale Child Study Center.

“Then it’s going to take significant time to really train them and how to apply this in the classroom,” Powers added.

The switch in curriculum in critical subjects comes as students have been found to be decades behind in learning from the pandemic.

The latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in June showed average scores for 13-year-olds in reading dropped to levels seen in 2004. In math, scores matched those seen in 1990.

In California, the state sent out new guidelines restructuring when and how math is taught in different grade levels, sparking objections from critics.

“I’m thankful for everyone who worked tirelessly to develop this framework to ensure California’s students have equitable access to rigorous and high-quality math instruction that will prepare them for the future. The framework has struck a great balance in new ways to engage students in developing a love for math while supporting those on an accelerated path,” said Mary Nicely, California’s chief deputy superintendent of public instruction.

California is now prioritizing data science, moving classes such as algebra to higher grade levels and using inquiry-based instruction.

Elementary school teachers, however, have already been shown to have high anxiety over teaching math even before the curriculum changes. 

The National Survey of Science and Mathematics Education found in 2018 that only 3 percent of elementary school teachers have a degree in math or math education.

The Stanford Graduate School of Education is hosting an upcoming workshop focused on teachers in grades three through five called “Teaching Mathematics through Big Ideas in the Elementary Years.” The one-day, six-and-a-half-hour online workshop is available to all elementary school teachers and focuses on “Big Ideas,” a concept that aims to “raise individual standards to a higher level so that students can learn mathematics as a meaningful subject of connected ideas.”

Educators also have access to other organizations that aim to help them overcome math anxiety and provide support to bolster their skills.

John Mighton, founder of JUMP Math, a nonprofit that aims to give teachers resources to improve math instruction, advocates for the “science of learning” and says the way some teachers are asked to approach math changes can be challenging.

“The actual math content can be a problem because a lot of, through no fault of their own, many elementary school teachers are mathphobic, or don’t know the math deeply,” Mighton said. “Our solution was to write very detailed lesson plans for them and also even give them slides where they can project all the questions you want to ask the kids.”

“We tried to take that load off teachers and I think that’s the only way you do it. You have to have a resource that allows them to learn the math as they teach it,” he added.

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