McCosh Elementary School in Woodlawn is a school that has beaten the odds.

With a large, poor and unstable student population, it fits the statistical profile of schools with the lowest expectations for student learning, according to the Consortium on Chicago School Research. The school enrolls nearly 1,000 students in kindergarten through 8th grade; 97 percent are low income. Its mobility rate, the percentage of students that transfer in or out during the school year, at last count was 47 percent.

The overwhelming majority of Chicago schools with similar demographics are still teaching 3rd-grade mathematics in the 8th grade, the Consortium found. McCosh used to lag years behind, but not any longer. After years of trial and error, the school, which is led by an award-winning principal, finally hit what the Consortium has identified as the right combination: teamwork, planning and professional development.

Eighth-grade math teacher Deborah Wade of McCosh Elementary School in Woodlawn laughs about it now, but at the time she was devastated. A university consultant had dropped by to observe her carefully prepared pre-algebra lesson. “I thought I did a really good lesson,” Wade recalls. But in a discussion afterward, the consultant “just ripped it to shreds,” she says with a chuckle.

At the time, nearly three years ago, Wade was teaching math the same way she was taught: explaining problems at the chalkboard while her students took notes.

“I thought they could learn just from me telling them, but it didn’t work,” she says. “All across the board, they were having problems [with] adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing, equations, problem-solving. They didn’t understand. They didn’t get it.”

Wade was familiar with “hands-on” math, where kids manipulate tangible objects such as blocks or geoboards to grasp abstract concepts; she had even used those strategies when she taught 4th grade. But she didn’t think her 8th-grade kids needed them—until that run-in with the math consultant. “It took that to make me mad enough to say, ‘Okay, I need to open up my eyes to more.'”

Several months earlier, Principal Barbara Eason-Watkins had phoned George Olson, then the dean of education at Roosevelt University, and requested math consultants. McCosh was “struggling in mathematics, particularly in middle-school mathematics,” she says. “At the time there was not a lot of information out there on what a good middle-school math program should look like.”

“None of us knew why the kids weren’t performing well,” Olson recalls. But he did know that McCosh teachers likely needed two things: better ways to teach math and a deeper understanding of the math they were teaching. Since elementary school teachers are required to take only two math courses for certification, “Their knowledge of math is very cursory,” he says.

McCosh already had made some progress with math instruction. In the early 1990s, Watkins learned of a study that found math textbooks were packed with material covered at previous grade levels, with some leading 8th-grade texts being more than 70 percent review. So she had teachers at every grade level write up a curriculum that covered skills and concepts outlined in district guidelines. That ended the practice of following textbooks “page by page, chapter by chapter,” and, as a result, quickened the pace of instruction, Watkins says.

In 1995, McCosh started schoolwide testing every five weeks to keep tabs on student progress with math and reading skills.

But a faster-paced curriculum and frequent testing did little to improve student performance. Math scores inched up, but remained low, with 26 percent of McCosh students at or above national norms in 1995. Eighth-grade scores were actually slipping. Without better teaching strategies, Watkins decided, kids just weren’t going to learn the math.

In January 1996, Olson of Roosevelt drew on a federal grant and sent over two consultants—Brigitte Erbe from his Education Department, and mathematician Steve Cohen. Their first goal was simply to pinpoint problems. They spent the remainder of the year interviewing teachers and visiting classrooms. In Wade’s room, Erbe found the class trying to tackle algebraic equations involving complicated fractions. She soon suspected that students didn’t grasp fractions on the most basic level.

“So I gave them a little quiz. I drew smiley faces and said ‘color in three-fifths.’ They couldn’t do it. I gave them circles and said ‘fill in two and a half pizzas’ and they couldn’t do it—let alone manipulate fractions.”

Erbe’s findings hardly surprised her. “To a lot of kids, numbers [are] just scrawlings on a piece of paper—symbols that they memorize with no real understanding,” she explains.

The trouble stems from the way math is usually taught—”as unrelated skills, unrelated problems or procedures that need to be memorized,” rather than as interrelated patterns and concepts, Erbe says.

Near the end of the school year, Erbe analyzed McCosh’s standardized test results to find the weakest areas. One stood out.

“Place value glared at us,” says Assistant Principal Juanita Skulark, who is also the school’s math coordinator. Across grade levels, students failed to fully grasp the idea of a ones, tens, or hundreds place. At the upper grades, that basic confusion led to trouble with most areas of mathematics, including computation, estimation, decimals and percents.

Before the summer break, staff gathered to discuss the results. The reason for students’ difficulty with place value became obvious. “The 1st-grade teachers said, ‘Well we thought that was something they taught later on, so we just didn’t teach it,'” Watkins says, and teachers in the higher grades assumed it had already been taught.

McCosh staff realized that although they had organized a curriculum for each grade level, they had never looked at it whole. “And that was the missing link,” says Watkins. That summer, McCosh began work on a schoolwide math curriculum that carefully sequenced skills from one grade level to the next.

In September, Roosevelt consultants were ready to begin more intensive professional development. Watkins had made clear, however, that she didn’t want “a package deal” from the university. Instead, Cohen and Erbe were to design weekly, after-school courses “not to respond to some generic concept of what mathematics should look like but what we needed here at our own school, what our own weaknesses were,” Watkins says.

For the entire year, Erbe met weekly with the primary grades and Cohen with the upper grades. They also visited classrooms to coach teachers and model lessons. The idea was to introduce “hands-on” activities that could make abstract ideas more concrete for students. Place value got special attention. For instance, Erbe demonstrated how students could represent three-digit numbers by bundling popsicle sticks into groups of 10 and 100 with rubber bands.

Most of all, the courses were intended as a springboard for teachers to discuss their own teaching strategies, “to try something new [and] if doesn’t work, figure out why it didn’t or discuss it with other people,” says 1st-grade teacher Jacquelyne White.

“I focused on relatively few things,” Erbe agrees. “They took off on their own.”

On a morning last June, Wade’s 8th-graders are pacing off the length of the gym, silently counting their strides and recording results on a sheet of paper. The day before, they had recorded the number of steps it took to cover a 20-meter section of the hallway. Now they can plug their recorded information into a ratio and solve for “x,” the length of the gym in meters. If it hadn’t been raining, Wade would have had them pace off the perimeter of the school building and the length of the block.

In White’s 1st-grade classroom, students are learning some basic geometry by stretching rubber bands across pegs on a geoboard to create symmetrical shapes. Other students sort colorful wooden shapes, count the number of each shape and represent that number by filling in squares on a graph—an introduction to “data analysis.”

Since the Roosevelt workshops, kids are retaining math concepts more easily, teachers say, and need less time to review. When math was just pencil-and-paper problems, “You had to go back and reteach, reteach, reteach,” says La Shonn Graham, a 2nd-grade teacher. Not only do concrete activities get the concepts across better, Graham says, they keep kids focused. “Once they’re engaged in learning, we can move at a steadier pace,” she adds.

Besides teaching instructional strategies, Roosevelt’s Cohen assisted the middle-school teachers with math concepts. After teaching 4th grade for so long, Wade found that some of her 8th-grade math concepts had grown fuzzy. “Any problems I would come across in the classroom I would write them down.”

By the time Cohen’s meeting rolled around, Wade had a list for him. The other teachers, “they’d complain, ‘You’re hogging the man, give him up.’ I’d say, ‘I want to know why this isn’t working’ or ‘I’m having a problem with this, can you explain?’ He would explain it,” says Wade.

“Because if it’s not clear to me, how am I going to go into the classroom and teach it to the kids?”

To get a firmer foundation in math, three McCosh middle-school teachers, including Wade, also began attending a three-year program at the University of Chicago called “Sesame” that would give them enough credits in college-level mathematics to earn state teaching endorsements in math.

Watkins wasn’t going to rely on university help alone, however. “Professional development is ongoing,” she says. “It’s not restricted to, ‘Let’s have a course and at the end of the course everything is going to change.'”

By 1996, Watkins had decided that real changes in teaching practice would require more of a team effort. One of the reasons the five-week assessments hadn’t made much of an impact on student achievement, she realized, was that teachers never had the time to analyze those results and talk about how to teach differently.

Beginning in 1996, McCosh began a comprehensive professional development program, including:

Common “prep periods” so that teachers at the same grade level could meet while their students attend “specials,” like library, music or gym.

“Teacher leader” meetings, where faculty take turns leading an interactive math or language arts lesson. The school banks time by adding extra minutes onto each day and releasing students early once a month for the half-day in-service training.

Extra substitutes to free up teachers during the day to observe “teacher leaders” in action or to collaborate on a special project.

After-school math workshops, usually led by math coordinator Skulark. These started once the Roosevelt courses ended. Teachers earn a stipend for attending, paid by funds from the Chicago Systemic Initiative, a National Science Foundation program.

More in-class coaching and demonstration lessons from Skulark.

Monthly “Breakfast Club” meetings to get teachers talking about the latest research on effective teaching. Teachers meet first thing in the morning to discuss articles on a topic that interests them. Watkins provides the rolls and coffee.

Teachers were hesitant about sharing teaching strategies at the meetings at first, says 1st-grade teacher Jacquelyne White. “You don’t know how receptive [other people are] going to be,” she says.

Teachers gradually opened up when they saw how responsive colleagues were—and how much they could learn from each other, White reports. The comfort they gained with each other at the formal meetings created more informal collaboration throughout the day—in the hallway, before school and after school, teachers say.

“That’s the reason why we’re successful,” insists 6th-grade teacher Mary Hoover. “We share.”

Success shows in McCosh’s rising math scores. In testing last spring, 38 percent of students scored at or above national norms. Eighth-grade scores rose most steeply between 1995 and 1997, from 12 percent at/above to 46 percent. With better teaching strategies and a firmer grasp of the content, Wade says she can now cover the entire 8th-grade curriculum as outlined in district standards. Before, she had spent so much time reviewing basic skills, arithmetic was nearly all she taught.

“You can’t teach 20 years and just teach the same things you taught the first year,” she acknowledges. “You have to open your eyes and say, ‘Okay, new approaches, new avenues.'”