Using ASSISTments to Support Equitable Math Instruction

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Brian Story, one of our Teacher Engagement Managers, overviews the importance of equity and inclusion in the classroom and what research tells us about how you can use ASSISTments to do so.

In the wake of the George Floyd protests, along with years of recorded and unrecorded injustices against Black and Brown people in the United States, issues around equity and inclusion are at the forefront of national discourse.  It’s also at the forefront of our work at ASSISTments. This is why we will always be forever free for teachers and students, and offer a range of free teacher training and support

As ASSISTments has scaled up over the past few years, we are serving an increasingly diverse population of teachers, students, and families, and are working hard to further improve to promote equitable and inclusive math teaching and learning through the product itself and our teacher support.  For example this month, we are offering a webinar featuring ASSISTments teachers and founder of the 228 Accelerator Caroline Hill to discuss equity and inclusion in the math classroom.

Beyond this, we regularly review the evidence-base for what works, and figuring out how that translates to the classroom. Through an approach grounded in research, we hope to provide the guidance and resources teachers need to implement ASSISTments in a way that supports all students. There are many great definitions for ‘equity’ and ‘inclusion.’  For our purposes, we define equity as, “...putting systems in place to ensure that every child has an equal chance for success,” which, “requires understanding the unique challenges and barriers faced by...students...and providing additional supports to help them overcome those barriers.” (Thinkingmaps)  We define an environment as inclusive when, “students, regardless of any challenges they may have, are placed in age-appropriate general education classes,” where they will, “...receive high-quality instruction, interventions, and supports that enable them to meet success…” (Resilient Educator)  But where do teachers go from here?  While there is some extant research on practices that promote equity and inclusion, they often don’t point to clear next steps and actions that a teacher can take.  Therefore, conversations around equity and inclusion can too often focus on general concepts without a clear pathway to high-leverage teacher actions.  

In our own efforts to bridge research and practice, we at ASSISTments have begun reviewing studies that can inform our approach to promoting equity and inclusion.  One recent example of something we found useful is “Evidence-supported interventions associated with Black students’ educational outcomes:  Findings from a systematic review of research,” from the Regional Educational Laboratory at the American Institutes for Research (REL) which reviews extant research on the topic.

REL Midwest, in their review of research, found the following practices showed positive associations with improvements in student achievement among Black students.  

  • Student-teacher relationship building: Decker, Dona, and Christenson found promising evidence that students’ desire to be close to their teachers, “...was positively associated with letter-naming fluency.”.  Black students are more likely to learn and grow in the classroom when they have a stronger relationship with their teacher.  
  • Formative assessment: One study found a, “...statistically significant positive association[s] between teachers’ use of formative assessment and students’ scores on the PISA...test.”  Furthermore, the study found that, “The associations were stronger for Black students than for White or Hispanic students.”  Formative assessments not only help teachers understand where their students are in the learning process, but also empower students to better understand what they have learned via practice and feedback.
  • High expectations: Woolley, Strutchens, Gilbert, and Martin found that, “...Black students whose teachers communicated high expectations had higher SAT-10 math scores.” Regardless of the knowledge and skills with which a student enters the classroom, high expectations ensure that students have an opportunity to rise to the challenge.  
  • Appropriate challenge: Finally, another study found that teachers who build, “...practices requiring students to explain their reasoning and perform sustained work on challenging tasks…” was, “...significantly associated with SAT-10 math scores of Black students.”  Helping students practice explaining how they think in the process of learning how to engage in rigorous coursework will help them learn and grow more in the classroom.  

As a Teacher Engagement Manager, my work is figuring out how this translates into guidance for educators using ASSISTments, and fortunately those connections are clear. 

  • Teachers can leverage the assignment and student details report as an opening to one on one relationship-building with their students.  When teachers have a solid pulse on where students are in the learning process, they can better address their individual needs and demonstrate a higher level of attention and care for the academic challenges students are experiencing.  This is especially true for students who experience challenges outside the classroom which serve as barriers to learning inside the classroom.  When students know that their teachers understand where they are, they are more willing to develop the kind of deep relationships needed to help them grow and challenge themselves.
  • At the core, ASSISTments is a formative tool that provides students with low-stakes practice. That paired with getting immediate feedback as they complete problems helps them better understand where they are in the learning process so they are less likely to become frustrated.  All this allows students to embrace practice as a means for growth rather than as a barrier to high grades in the class, while providing teachers with the data they need to better support students.
  • ASSISTments enables teachers to assign from high quality core curriculum, like Illustrative Math and Eureka Math, supporting high expectations and appropriate challenge to all students. Especially in the move to distance learning, teachers could continue to provide students access to challenging problems through ASSISTments, and also assign additional practice from our library of common-core aligned questions. While immediate feedback is valuable, these materials also include open response questions where students can explain their thinking. Teachers can become intimidated by how and when to provide students feedback on their written responses.  However, using the ASSISTments essay scoring screen on any open response, teachers can view, score, and provide feedback on all student responses on a problem in one place so that they can quickly provide the feedback students need and ensure that writing in Math is a high-quality, growth-oriented experience for all students.

As educators, we know that students do best when we create an equitable and inclusive classroom environment where students are recognized for the potential they each have to grow and learn.  The risk of not doing this is to confine our students to a single story and reinforce barriers that make it harder for students to be successful.  By implementing strategies that support teacher-student relationships, formative learning experiences, high expectations, and appropriate challenges, teachers can create a more equitable and inclusive classroom that honors the complexities and challenges of all students so they can reach their full potential.  

In “The Danger of a Single Story” Chimamanda Adichie talks about how viewing people through the lens of a single story, “...robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult...Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.” But, “...when we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story...we regain a kind of paradise.” We are excited to continue to build a community of ASSISTments teachers that implement research-based practices that empower all students to grow and learn regardless of their backgrounds, experiences, traumas, or challenges.

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