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New Middle School Math Teachers in Palm Beach County To Get Extra Help With $1M Grant

Madeline Fox
Palm Beach County school district officials Diana Snider and Diana Fedderman are leading a new training program for early career math teachers.

Early-career middle school math teachers in Palm Beach County are beginning an intensive, two-year training program, with the goal of improving instruction, and ultimately, student performance.

The Palm Beach County school district was awarded a $1 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for the project, along with two companies, including education-publishing giant Pearson. All of the district’s fifth, sixth and seventh grade math teachers in their first four years of teaching — a total of 69 — will receive ongoing professional development and coaching in the district’s newly adopted curriculum, written by Pearson.

Choosing the Pearson curriculum wasn’t a requirement of the grant, said Diana Fedderman, the district’s assistant superintendent of teaching and learning. The award did require the use of high-quality instructional materials, and the company’s “enVision Florida Mathematics” curriculum comes highly recommended, she said.

“We saw this grant application that was out there. We were in the midst of trying to adopt a new curriculum, and we were looking at Pearson anyway, so we approached Pearson,” Fedderman said. “It really was kismet the way everything came together.”

The other company involved is UPD Consulting, which works to improve academics at education systems around the country.

The funding will cover the salaries of staff both at the school district and Pearson who will work on the professional development project. A Pearson employee has moved to Palm Beach County and will coach teachers one-on-one, observing and offering feedback, Fedderman said. The grant will also pay for substitutes on occasions when the participating teachers are out of their classrooms.

The new curriculum, which the district is using in kindergarten through eighth grade, focuses less on memorization and repetition and more on mastery of foundational concepts, so students can be “problem solvers,” she said.

To explain how the curriculum is different, Fedderman offered an analogy that replaces the classroom with the kitchen:

“If you give me a recipe, I can follow that recipe to the T, and I will turn out a great meal. It’s excellent. Nobody has any problem eating it. We’re all good,” she said. “And I learn math the same way. I can follow a formula, and I can produce an answer for you at the end of it.

“The way my sister cooks is very different,” she said. “You can just hand her a bunch of ingredients, … and she whips something up. It just comes from her head, her imagination. That’s how we’re teaching math now: We’re teaching our students to think conceptually. It’s not just following a formula; it’s actually understanding the ‘why’ behind the math.”

New math teachers often need the most help in learning the content and mastering teaching strategies, Fedderman said. For example, at the teachers’ first training, they learned about “scaffolding.”

“So when your students don’t quite understand a concept, how do you ‘scaffold’? How do you give them some hints and tips to try to get them there, … without [giving] them so much of it that they’re not doing the thinking on their own?

“That’s a fine line to walk as a teacher. It’s really challenging,” she said. “You have a classroom of 23 students, and for every one of those 23 students, the line is in a different spot.”

Early career educators disproportionately teach black and Latino students, low-income children and those whose native language is not English. The district hopes the training will benefit those students in particular.

Jessica Bakeman is Director of Enterprise Journalism at WLRN News, and she is the former senior news editor and education reporter. Her 2021 project "Class of COVID-19" won a national Edward R. Murrow Award.
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