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Math for 5th-graders to be departmentalized

New York Teacher
Bruce Cotler

George Thornlow, a 5th-grade teacher at PS 506 in Sunset Park, taught departmentalized math for three years. “It was a great experience,” he said.

The Department of Education has announced it will begin departmentalizing math instruction for 5th-graders over the next five years. The idea behind the move, part of the DOE’s “Algebra for All” initiative, is to have designated teachers specialize in math to make sure more 8th-graders are prepared for algebra.

“Research demonstrates that departmentalization will enable us to deepen the expertise of teachers while improving outcomes for students,” the DOE said in a memo sent to principals in early January. “We know this initiative is a big step forward and are working to develop both the operational and instructional supports schools will need to be successful.”

In the memo, the DOE asked principals who are interested in participating in the initial phase, which will begin in September 2016, to designate one 5th-grade teacher as the math instructor for the entire grade. The first group of teachers to participate will receive three days of paid training this spring, three weeks over the summer and five more sessions throughout the next school year.

The move toward departmentalization is part of the effort to help teachers tackle the more demanding and complex math work in the Common Core Learning Standards.

“Especially with the introduction of the Common Core, math really is a deeper dive and the multi-step problems are more rigorous than ever before,” said Karen Alford, the UFT’s vice president for elementary schools. “I think some teachers will welcome the ability to not have to focus on math and others will welcome the thought of being able to focus on one topic.”

Alford stressed the importance of providing the selected math teacher with appropriate support.

On the UFT’s Facebook page, the news was met with cautious optimism, with many teachers indicating they would welcome a departmentalized structure.

“As an educator, I know this is an excellent idea,” wrote Debra Fields, a teacher at IS 162 in the Bronx, in a Facebook comment. “There are too many subjects for one educator to effectively teach on the elementary school level.”

Teachers who have personal experience in a departmentalized setting also reacted positively.

“It was a great experience,” said George Thornlow, a 5th-grade teacher at PS 506 in Sunset Park, who taught departmentalized math for three years before a new administrator ended the practice. “It made me a better math teacher because I was able to reflect more on one subject. If you have one class in the morning and something doesn’t work well, you know what to change when you’re doing the same lesson with the other class.”

The DOE is asking schools that participate in the 2016–17 round of departmentalization to attempt to schedule students for at least one hour of math instruction per day.

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