Benjamin Franklin Elementary’s Math

By: Sarah Mervosh

MERIDEN, Conn. — It’s just after lunchtime, and Dori Montano’s fifth-grade math class is running on a firm schedule.

In one corner of the classroom, Ms. Montano huddles with a small group of students, working through a lesson about place value: Is 23.4 or 2.34 the bigger number? Nearby, other students collaborate to solve a “math mystery.” All the while, Ms. Montano watches the time.

At 1:32 p.m., she presses a buzzer, sending students shuffling: “Ladies and gentleman, switch please!”

This is what pandemic recovery looks like at Benjamin Franklin Elementary in Meriden, Conn., where students are showing promising progress in math, a subject that was hit hard during the shift to remote learning, even more so than reading.

The school’s math progress may not look like much: a small improvement amounting to a single decimal point increase from spring 2019 to the spring of this year, according to state test results.

But by pandemic standards, it was something of a minor miracle, holding steady when test scores nationally have fallen, particularly among low-income, Black and Hispanic students, the children that Franklin serves. About three in four students at the school qualify for free or reduced lunch, and a majority are Hispanic, Black or multiracial.

The groundwork was laid before the pandemic, when Franklin overhauled how math was taught.

It added as much as 30 minutes of math instruction a day. Students in second grade and above now have more than an hour, and fourth and fifth graders have a full 90 minutes, longer than is typical for many schools. Students no longer have lessons dominated by a teacher writing problems on a white board in front of the class. Instead, they spend more time wrestling with problems in small groups. And, for the first time, children who are behind receive math tutoring during the school day.

Any one of the changes may seem small. But pulling them off required an almost herculean effort and cultural shifts at every level. District officials needed to shake up teaching methods and the school day to maximize instruction time; principals needed to enforce the changes and teachers had to accept having less autonomy.

“In the old way, it was, Open your textbook and sit there and be bored,” said Dan Crispino, the director of school leadership who oversaw changes at Franklin and other elementary schools in Meriden, a former manufacturing town with about 8,500 students in its public schools.

By his own admission, the changes did not always make Mr. Crispino popular.

“They had a wanted sign — dead or alive — for me all over the district,” he joked, though a certain truth remained. After all, he was telling teachers how to do their jobs, sometimes down to the minute.

The results are still early, but Franklin offers a glimpse of just how much it may take to help students catch up amid the pandemic — and how far there is to go.

When federal officials release national test results for fourth and eighth graders on Oct. 24, educators expect to see stark declines from 2019. Even before Covid, American students trailed global competitors in math, and too many children performed below grade level, with alarming gaps in outcomes that often left low-income students and students of color behind.

Today, at Franklin, about 45 percent of students are proficient in math, in line with state averages. Yet an hour south in New Canaan, a wealthier, whiter district with a median household income of about $190,000, elementary students have almost double the math proficiency rate, at about 85 percent. Like other states, Connecticut has significant disparities in school funding that mean Meriden’s spending per student is among the lowest in the state.

“The bottom line is that school districts across the country have their work cut out for them,” said Daniel A. Domenech, executive director of the School Superintendents Association. “We have such a significant achievement gap in performance in this country between the haves and the have-nots, and that gap was made even greater by the pandemic.”

The changes in Meriden began in late 2019.

Mr. Crispino, a former principal, was hired to oversee all elementary schools after helping turn around one district school that had been at risk of being taken over by the state because of poor performance. The school was eventually awarded a prestigious national award, and Mr. Crispino was asked to take the lessons learned districtwide.

Then the pandemic struck.

Meriden reopened faster than many places, by fall 2020, a decision that surely helped buffer against more serious academic losses. Still, many families opted to stay home, including at Franklin, where some students remained remote for many months.

To make up for lost learning, schools across the country have sought to add instruction, though often outside the school day, during afternoon tutoring or summer school. Such programs can be helpful but depend on student attendance.

Meriden continued to bet on the school day itself.

District officials had repurposed a half-hour meant for extra help on various subjects — either from teachers or through work sheets — and put that time into math.

Up and down the hallways at Franklin, math is now taught the same way: a short lesson, followed by group work. For 15 or 20 minutes, the teacher meets with some students, while others work in their own groups. Students who need extra help go with tutors, some of whom were paid for with federal pandemic relief funds.

At the ding of a chime or buzzer, students rotate.

Julie Sarama, who researches early math education at the University of Denver, said working with students in small groups “is really important, and a lot of teachers past kindergarten don’t want to do it.” Part of the resistance, she said, comes down to tradition. “You just teach the way you were taught.”

At Franklin, the changes hinged on a meticulous schedule for its 350 or so students. The school’s principal, Joanne Conte, observed classrooms, along with Mr. Crispino. Even a five-minute delay returning from recess could draw notice, because that five minutes was lost instructional time.

It was often up to Ms. Conte — who described herself as the tortoise, “slow and steady,” to Mr. Crispino’s energetic hare — to deliver feedback. She slipped handwritten notes in teachers’ mailboxes, offering a compliment or question.

In another adjustment, teachers were asked to cover similar material per grade, at a similar pace. While the approach ensured uniformity, it also meant teachers had less ownership over classrooms.

Christine Joy, a fifth-grade teacher, typically looked forward to bringing in pumpkins for students to measure, weigh and experiment with at Halloween. Under the new structure, she cannot just teach the lesson at her discretion, but instead plans ahead, banking “flex” minutes.

Krista Vermeal, a teacher at Franklin and a vice president in Meriden’s teachers’ union, which collaborated on the changes, said some teachers initially saw the new system as overly regimented, creating additional work and zapping the fun out of teaching.

“We put so much of our heart and soul into what we do, any kind of change feels really personal,” she said.

But now, she said, “I think the buy-in is there.”

It helps that the children seem to be engaged, even enjoying themselves.

On a recent morning, fourth graders raised their hands, eager to share strategies for solving a problem (15 + 16 = 31) in their head. While teachers met with small groups, other students spread out, on a beanbag chair or carpet.

Brielle Betancourt, a soft-spoken 9-year-old with long, dark hair, worked alongside another student, Marcus Crespo-Ellison. They saw advantages in practicing together. “You can help each other,” Brielle said. “You can learn from different people.”

Marcus, also 9, declared with a tinge of surprise that math was his favorite subject. “I actually kind of like math,” he said. “I’m super good at math.”

Experts say peer work can be particularly beneficial in math, which comes to life in the magic of problem solving. Instead of becoming frustrated — or, equally problematic, bored — in full-class lessons, students can share strategies for solving problems with one another.

Increasing class time and building tutors into the school day can also be helpful, research suggests, but those tools must be used effectively.

“More time wasted is just more time wasted,” said Tequilla Brownie, the chief executive of TNTP, a nonprofit that consults with school districts and that has urged schools not to focus on reviewing old material for struggling students, but rather start with grade-level content and fill in gaps.

And, math experts emphasized, lessons must focus on conceptual understanding, not just regurgitating answers, so that students can reason and apply math in the real world.

At Franklin, fifth graders may be asked to budget a Thanksgiving meal for their families, comparing prices and making decisions.

“Let’s say the turkey is 89 cents a pound; they have to figure out how many pounds they need,” said Ms. Montano, the fifth-grade teacher. “You want mashed potatoes: Are you buying fresh potatoes or the boxed potatoes?”

In some ways, the progress at Franklin also points to the difficult work that needs to be done.

The school is still catching up in English language arts. Fewer changes were made to that subject, which had historically seen higher student outcomes and already included small-group instruction and 90-minute classes for most grades.

Even in math, the victories have not overcome the disparities that define American education. For example, lower-income students at Franklin trail their higher-income peers, and Hispanic students lag behind white students.

Other Meriden schools that also changed instruction are showing growth but have not caught up as quickly.

The reasons are hard to tease out. Some schools are larger, some have more poverty. And then there is school culture, a mystical quality that is difficult to quantify, but is present in fist bumps and hugs in the hallways, in yoga stretches and breathing exercises before class.

In the world of education, it can take a whole lot to move the needle just a little bit.

Lately, Mark Benigni, Meriden’s superintendent, has been dreaming about what might be possible if schools had more time in the day.

To make up pandemic losses, some education leaders have argued that districts should lengthen the school year or day. That approach would take not just political will among parents and educators, but also money and staffing, precious commodities in education.

“Six hours, 180 days is not enough,” Mr. Benigni said. “It has never been enough.”