by John Lamb

Successful completion of high-level math coursework in high school is a strong predictor of postsecondary enrollment, persistence, and graduation. In East Texas, however, participation and performance in high-level math lag behind the needs of the region and state. In most area schools, less than 60% of students meet the state’s College Readiness Standard in mathematics, and wide racial/ethnic and income gaps exist. GTF awarded a grant of $865,963 to The University of Texas at Tyler, in partnership with Sam Houston State University and Stephen F. Austin University, to strengthen math outcomes in East Texas through intensive professional development for middle school math teachers. The project, known as Advancing Inquiry in Middle Mathematics for Rural East Texas (AIMM), targets teachers’ beliefs, content knowledge, and instructional practices to improve students’ attitudes and math performance. Dr. John Lamb, associate professor of mathematics education, provides an update on AIMM:

More than 110 rural and small-town mathematics teachers are transforming student learning through their participation in the AIMM program. They begin with two phases of intensive summer training: 1) a two-day workshop at The University of Texas at Tyler where they are introduced to major concepts, such as how to teach problem-solving, and begin to form relationships with their colleagues from other districts; and 2) a series of content-focused sessions taught at their local university. Throughout the school year, they complete assignments that require them to reflect on their questioning, problem-solving tasks, and student interactions in the classroom. They also attend weekend trainings on pedagogical practices like fostering productive struggle, as well as “embedded days,” where they visit other schools to observe and reflect on model lessons taught by AIMM leaders.

Rural schools seldom have the opportunity to participate in programs like ours, but our team values the reality that nearly half of East Texas students attend school in rural areas, and we know firsthand that rural schools appreciate our attention to their unique and important role in educating those students. When we conduct embedded days in rural schools, we receive a level of hospitality that is extremely rare when working in larger schools because our hosts are so appreciative of the services we provide. Principals have publicly acknowledged and given credit for this program’s impact on their improved student assessments, and we often receive notes from teachers describing how AIMM has influenced their teaching and students’ learning. For example, one educator described a young man in her class who demonstrated multiple strategies for solving a problem: “This is a student who has struggled immensely the last few years. HE GETS IT! I am so proud. Thanks for the teaching I have received from you.”

Teaching mathematics can be difficult in rural areas, but the teachers in our program are rising to the challenge. Because they are willing to struggle to expand their understanding, their students are learning to do the same.



What advice do you have for other rural districts that want to improve students’ math performance?

  • Thinking in a classroom comes in two forms, student or teacher. If teachers focus on students “owning” most of the thinking, then learning can be improved. Rural districts should advocate for their teachers to increase non-routine problem-solving tasks throughout the year to provide students with opportunities to own the thinking in their classrooms.
  • Students need opportunities to struggle in mathematics and to be challenged with upper-level mathematics courses. Rural campuses often cannot or choose not to provide upper-level mathematics courses at the middle school or high school, preventing highly capable students from having access to important content. Rural districts should work together to leverage technology in a way that provides all schools and their students access to every mathematics course that urban schools are privileged to offer.