A City Education: How One Special Math Problem Each Week Boosts Achievement

City Year New York corps members have started a school-wide math initiative to bring kids up to speed.

New York's state standardized tests are in April, and they're pretty high stakes: if students don't pass the math section, some of them, unfortunately, may not move on to the next grade. Since many students here at P.S. 154 struggle to keep their math scores up to par, I and my fellow City Year New York corps members often run multiplication drills during lunch, or play math games with them after school.

While there are also many websites and resources that we can refer students and parents to that provide entertaining and challenging math activities, we decided we wanted to take additional action ourselves. So, in the beginning of January, one of my teammates, Sam, started a school-wide math initiative called the Problem of the Week.

Every week, each grade—kindergarten through fifth—is given a new math problem to solve. The questions are based on each grade’s math curriculum and most of them are word problems. Sam chose to predominantly use word problems because those are often the toughest problems on the state tests. If the kids get lots of practice on word problems now, they’re more likely to approach them with both the knowledge and confidence they need to ace them in April.

The questions are put on poster-size paper and hung in the hallways throughout the school. Printed out copies are also provided for each student and teacher. Sam comes in to work early every Monday morning to take down the old problems, put up the new posters, and print out copies of the question to distribute during homeroom.

The Problem of the Week has seen a lot of success in its first month. We have had three full weeks of problems, and over 267 submissions from students—131 of which were correct. When a student submits a correct answer they’re given a coupon. Three of those coupons earn the student one lunch with our City Year team.

One student has already answered three questions correctly and earned his reward. He recently cashed in his coupon and spent lunchtime with us in the City Year room, munching on his sandwich and playing chess with Sam. It was also nice for me to see how proud this student was of having achieved the goal of earning lunch with us since I work with him in after school. I’ve previously seen him be very hesitant to do his math homework—usually he wants to play games instead. The Problem of the Week initiative has motivated him to do extra math work, and being rewarded for that has inspired him to work harder overall in math class.

The Problem of the Week also doubles as a literacy initiative for our students. For the younger students who are still learning to read, the teachers agreed to use part of their class time to read the problem to the students and work with them to understand the language. It has been wonderful to see our students building their literacy skills, embracing a new mathematical challenge each week, and doing their best to solve the problems. We hope all the hard work they're putting in pays off with passing grades on the math exams.

Photo courtesy of City Year New York

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