How a rural Alabama school system outdid the country with gains in math

While the rest of the country’s schools were losing ground in math during the COVID pandemic, student performance in a rural Alabama school district was soaring.

Piedmont City schools notched significant improvement in math, landing in the top spot among school districts across the country in a comparison of scores from before and during the pandemic. Nationwide, students on average fell half a year behind in math, researchers say.

Piedmont, a 1,100-student district where seven out of 10 qualify for free or reduced-prince lunch, has stuck with an approach it adopted before the pandemic: It gave teachers more time to dig into data on students’ scores and lengthened classes to help them focus on specific skills.

“We made a total transformation about five years ago,” Superintendent Mike Hayes said. “We decided that we were going to let data make every decision.”

In other words, Piedmont teachers use test scores to see where kids are struggling and then target teaching to each kid. And then repeat.
The Education Reporting Collaborative, a coalition of eight newsrooms, is documenting the math crisis facing schools and highlighting progress. Members of the Collaborative are AL.com, The Associated Press, The Christian Science Monitor, The Dallas Morning News, The Hechinger Report, Idaho Education News, The Post and Courier in South Carolina, and The Seattle Times.
Targeted instruction for small groups of students has years of research and evidence to back it up, said Rebecca Dreyfus of TNTP, a national nonprofit devoted to helping schools improve student learning. Pinpointing what skills need shoring up — and using systematic and explicit instruction, as backed by the “science of math” — makes it even more effective, she said.

“The short answer is that using data effectively and efficiently to plan and monitor instruction is always going to make instruction better for kids,” Dreyfus said.

Piedmont students ranked 35th in the state in math proficiency in 2017, when Hayes took over as superintendent. By spring 2022, the district ranked twelfth in the state on math proficiency, with 57% of students reaching proficiency. Statewide, 30% of students scored proficient in math.

“Once we made that decision and stuck to it and made changes and allowed our teachers time to look at the data and dive into the data, it paid off,” Hayes said.

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