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Posted on Tue, Aug 10, 2010 : 5:59 a.m.

University of Michigan uses math lab to study teaching, help Ypsilanti fifth-graders learn

By David Jesse


Deborah Loewenberg Ball, right, dean of the University of Michigan School of Education, works with group of fifth-graders from Ypsilanti, teaching them math as teachers from around the country observe her techniques.

Lon Horwedel |

As they filed in, the fifth-graders chatted with their teacher for a minute, planning an end-of-the-class party. They quickly found their seats at large horseshoe-shaped tables, put their heads down and started working on a math problem.

But while it looked like a scene from a typical summer learning classroom, it was anything but.

Most classrooms don’t have microphones sitting on the table next to every student and video cameras recording their every move. Nor do they have three tiers of teachers, researchers and academics carefully watching and a closed-circuit video feed to another room with yet more teachers and academics.

But this is the Elementary Mathematics Laboratory project at the University of Michigan’s School of Education, designed to not only help students learn math, but also help teachers learn how to teach.


Deborah Lowenberg Ball, back to camera, works with group of fifth graders from Ypsilanti. Lon Horwedel |

On any given day over the past two weeks, students are learning math, teachers are learning how to teach and other teachers are learning how to teach other teachers - all spending their days in second-floor classrooms at the education school. Between 75 to 100 people watch every day.

The students come from Ypsilanti. They spend a lot time working on fractions, but also focus on expressing how they got their answers. It’s part of a national and university effort to increase math literacy among students by getting them to think mathematically.

The focus on fractions is intentional, said Deborah Loewenberg Ball, the dean of the education school and a longtime classroom teacher who is one of the nation’s leading mathematics educators.

“Fractions are at the heart of algebra,” she said.

The lab has been running for several years and is the brainchild of Ball, who teaches the students each day.

Changes this year include more emphasis on writing, especially in terms of teaching the students to express the way they solve problems, Ball said. And teachers work with students on studying skills.

Students also have homework and take quizzes. 

They arrive on campus around 9 a.m., just in time for a pre-class snack.

By that time, the teachers and others who are observing them have been there for at least an hour - meeting in a large group to discuss a detailed classroom lesson plan, talking about what Ball will teach that day and what she wants students to learn.

Last Thursday morning, the conversation ranged from what the students were going to call the lines they were making on a larger number line to the pacing of the lesson.

“Some individuals are finding out specific things that they take back directly to their classrooms,” Ball said. “Things like how they are going to set up math notebooks. Others are working on items like how to talk in front of a class, or working on class structure. Others are working on how to teach other teachers how to teach math.”

Once the students arrived, teachers watched from the risers or over monitors. They took copious notes - some on laptop computers and some on notebooks - and craned their necks to get a better look at what the students were doing.

A sound technician juggled the students' microphones, turning them on when they were talking - either to the class as a whole or to Ball - to let those watching hear the whole conversation. Ball also wears a microphone.

Once the class is done for the day, the students go on for tutoring and other events.

The observers gather for a breakdown of the day - what went right, what they can learn and what they are going to do the next day.

Then after a lunch break, the teachers attend a variety of workshops designed to help them improve their teaching.

The lab is part of the school’s teacher education reform efforts.

“This is a deliberate attempt to provide a place to watch other people teach and working on teaching," Ball said. "We’re also studying what’s going on so we can develop high-leverage practices, things that if you’re good at, there’s a good chance your students will be growing.”

Later this summer, a high-school level math project will also begin as part of the university’s work with the Algebra Project.

From there, Ball hopes to expand to similar labs in other subjects, both to help students with learning, and also to help teachers get better.

U-M plans to continue the lab next summer. Ball said members of the non-teaching public are welcome to come in and watch and learn about teaching.

David Jesse covers K-12 education for He can be reached or at 734-623-2534.



Tue, Aug 10, 2010 : 2:20 p.m.

Microtini: I can tell you that this program helped the kids: I was with them for the whole two weeks!. Not only did the kids go to class with Dr. Ball in the morning, they also spent an hour at the end of the day with their own personal tutor. Not only did the children's reasoning skills improve, they made a lot of progress in terms of explaining their answers. They were also able to catch up on some important concepts that they didn't completely grasp in their fourth grade classrooms, for whatever reason. Not only did their math improve, but so did their confidence in themselves. Many students stop trying in math because they think they "just can't get it." I spent two hours listening to the students present what they learned to their parents and friends at their closing ceremony, and they were absolutely BEAMING. Shame on you, Microtini, for discouraging a program that shows kids that they can succeed despite their income, race, or what their teachers have expected of them in the past. Also, did you miss the other objective of the EML? It is a research lab, meaning that educators look at the program year after year and develop new and more effective ways to teach kids math. So the program does focus on the cause of the problem--inadequate teaching. I don't know what makes you call yourself an "educator" if you have no faith that teachers can make a difference in students' academic performance or their confidence. It is unfortunate that we have teachers out there who give up as easily as you. Good day, sir/ma'am.

Mr. Tibbs

Tue, Aug 10, 2010 : 11:56 a.m.

microtini has economic justice on his poor widdle mind. The rich didn't do this. they know that if we do NOT have jobs we cannot buy thier products you imbicile. Which brings me to a very painful truth about ann arbor..... an education does NOT garantee intelligence. darn few of us outside of regular contact with the deaf, can communicate using sign language yet a very famous ape could.... But I digress, my father had a teaching degree in math, and I was probably his greatest dissapointment. thank god for the calculator. back to my point. I firmly believe all this is the work of the people who are trying to collapse the capitolist system. funny thing though, even though George Soros, one of those people who has been spending like mad trying to promote socialism/communism, could not be doing what he is doing without capitolism, and the very idea that everything has a price in his mind, including a mans honor. mainly the people he surrounds himself with, IS capitolism. also. how did he get so rich without practicing capitolism? haven't you taken notice? the very people that are telling us to conserve are the very people living in wretched excess? to the children out there. there is onyl one thing on this planet that people in power cannot take from you. your education. they can however, and actually have done so, refused to teach ACURATE AMERICAN HISTORY. I know this as I have a niece with a full boat ride in history and do we have debates, and she is now a fan of Glenn Beck! An education, self esteem, hitting the lotto....nothing is garanteed to you. You have to look for it, you have to work for it. nothing is handed to you quite unlike what the entitlement mentality that has been taught in our schools will tell you. all things good in this life require sacrifice. including a decent education. which is why I took my sons to a tiny little village outside of ann arbor where I knew the teachers by name and they knew me! ask my sons, and ask thier friends and ask their friends parents. they'll tell you I did OK. And I don't even know if I should mention this, without getting "Coach Englished" I spanked them when they had it coming and thier mother and I are still married! it does make a difference. with both parents in the home sometimes money, and or the lack of it, can be lived with. if you know how to sacrifce.


Tue, Aug 10, 2010 : 10:01 a.m.

A vital point in the "microtini" comment is completely ignored by the subsequent posters: "Despite the relatively large financial commitment they make to these programs, schools simply dont attempt to measure correlation with student-success rates." New and improved techniques for teaching math (or often just arithmetic) have long been trotted out to great fanfare. They get quickly and uncritically approved by math-challenged school board members. Often, they are abruptly sprung on unprepared teachers. The disruption can damage instruction for the good students as well as the bad. It is in the interest of the administrators to hype and not to measure.


Tue, Aug 10, 2010 : 9:08 a.m.

Want to help students learn math? Get rid of everyday math. Start using the methods of Kumon or Singapore math. I'll take my consulting fee in small bills, thanks.


Tue, Aug 10, 2010 : 8:24 a.m.

@Scott Hadley (@local) Sounds like local read 100% of the article but noticed that 50% of the story was missing and decided to add a fraction of dimension to it. local expanded the piece to refute the routine teacher-bashing that comes up in every story with the word teacher in it on these pages. It's important to read in between the lines, as well.

Gary Schmidt

Tue, Aug 10, 2010 : 8:15 a.m.

Microtini: Deborah Ball does acknowledge the influence of race and class on student achievement--and she's also got plenty of data to show that teaching CAN overcome it. There's this, for instance, from a Michigan Today article. Pertinent section: Ball notes that the "most significant predictors of school achievement are race and class." A student's personal background, in other words, even trumps attendance as a factor in school success. But teachers with strong math-teaching knowledge can actually neutralize the effects of race and class. In short, using the skills Deborah Ball has studied, a teacher can have as much influence on a student as enormous personal and social factors have. And she's also one of a new breed of innovative, data-driven reformers featured in the Times magazine. Of course we should address the fundamental social issues like poverty and racism that damage achievement...but what do we do in the meantime? Are you saying teachers should NOT try to learn more effective teaching techniques? That we should just keep doing what we've been doing, despite the system's colossal failures? Sorry, but Ball is one of the most effective players in a really exciting movement to transform education. Up til recently, people have been saying "we need to fix the students first." Or else, "we need to have more testing, and then students will magically learn." But Ball and her compatriots are figuring out how to bridge the gap between where students are NOW, and how to get them to achieve. And the data clearly shows that if you can give the teachers these teaching skills, they can make a major, immediate difference in how much kids from all backgrounds learn.

5c0++ H4d13y

Tue, Aug 10, 2010 : 7:49 a.m.

@local did you even read the story? It's like you're commenting on some other article you read.


Tue, Aug 10, 2010 : 7:32 a.m.

Since it's apparently taboo to mention the obvious, please allow me to do it: The majority of kids in the photos are black. Do black students have trouble with math because they lack some sort of unique cognitive ability that other students possess? Is their disproportional failure-rate due to secret teaching techniques that only work on whites and Asians? Are they inherently learning-disabled? I teach math in a nearby district and every year I see the same kids struggling with basic concepts. I, too, regularly participate in special programs like the one described in the article. And I, too, see negligible progress every year. (And yes, school districts launch multiple programs like this every year.) And here's a twist: There are few black students in my district. Just as you probably guessed, the similarity between the kids in the photographs and the kids in my classroom is economic, (if you can call the 26% unemployment rate for blacks "similar" to the 13% rate for whites). Almost to a student, the kids in my classroom who struggle with basic concepts come from families that have been hit hard by the economic disaster. Its no secret that few children living in poverty do well in school. Like the ludicrous "Just Say No" campaign that was shown to have no effect on drug-use among children, programs like the one engineered by the U-M School of Education will have no significant effect on student achievement. But don't take my word for it. Perhaps could ask local school districts for data on the effectiveness of these programs. I suspect your findings will reveal, among other things, that there is very little legitimate statistical data available. (Despite the relatively large financial commitment they make to these programs, schools simply dont attempt to measure correlation with student-success rates.) Dr. Ball is respected in the education community and her efforts to raise student achievement are commendable. However, until we focus our energies on the cause of the problemand not the symptomswe will see no significant change.


Tue, Aug 10, 2010 : 6:02 a.m.

Wait, I thought teachers had the summer off, that they didn't work during this time?!?! Good to see something in print that shows that teachers are working during the summer to better their teaching. These types of things take place all summer throughout the state. Teachers generally pay for these workshops out of pocket, but do it to better themselves as teachers.