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MidSchoolMath gets perfect grade in review

When it comes to education-related scores, New Mexico ranks pretty low in the U.S., but the state now has bragging rights as the birthplace for the nation’s No. 1 middle school math curriculum, thanks to a small Taos-based startup.

EdReports, a national nonprofit clearinghouse that reviews and ranks nearly all mainstream educational curriculum in the U.S., gave MidSchoolMath LLC’s interactive story-telling approach to instruction a perfect score in April on every area reviewed, including the math curriculum’s focus and coherence, its rigor and mathematical practices, and its usability.

That’s an impressive achievement that no other U.S. educational publishing firm has yet achieved under EdReport’s most current criteria for ranking fifth- to eighth-grade math materials, said MidSchoolMath co-founder and CEO Scott Laidlaw.

A still frame from Taos-based MidSchoolMath’s “Empires” program. (Courtesy of Midschoolmath LLC)

“We didn’t receive just a good score, but a perfect score, which is the highest achievement by any publisher to date on EdReport’s new criteria,” Laidlaw told the Journal. “… We’re now literally the nation’s leading publisher for mid-school math. We’re challenging the biggest publishers who have existed since the early 1900s by bringing something entirely new to students in school districts across the country.”

That could immensely increase school district adoption of the company’s innovative curriculum, which is entirely based on computer games, live video and digital animation. The program provides immersive multimedia platforms that aim to make math fun, drawing kids into colorful, fantasy adventures where they wield math tools to solve problems.

MidSchoolMath’s math program uses interactive storytelling to engage middle school students in learning.

It’s already been used in about 120 schools in 23 states, reaching about 80,000 fifth- to eighth-grade students. Now, requests for more information are pouring in from schools around the nation, according to Laidlaw.

“Since the EdReports’ scores came out, we’ve had requests for trials and demonstrations from some of the larger school districts in the country,” he said. “We expect to double or triple the size of our user base over the next couple of months. I can barely manage all the inquiries.”

A new, three-piece article series by the education-focused journalism initiative EdSurge is also generating broad interest. The series includes an interview with Jo Boaler – a nationally renowned Stanford University professor and author of numerous books on math education – who chose to endorse the MidSchoolMath curriculum after rejecting all previous endorsement requests from other publishers.

Boaler, who tested the curriculum with middle school students in California, said MidSchoolMath offers an authentic, multidimensional experience with “deep engagement” that inspires kids to care about what they’re doing and seek answers to questions.

“They’re looking at data,” Boaler told EdSurge in the interview, published April 12. “They’re seeing visuals. They are engaged in conversation. I have been asked by a lot of publishers to endorse their curriculum. This is the one we need for our middle grades.”

Laidlaw, a former middle school math teacher in Questa, and former CPA Jennifer Lightwood launched the company together in 2009 to develop a comprehensive curriculum that uses immersive storytelling to attack the infamous “midschool math cliff,” where students from fifth to eighth grade notoriously plummet in math skills. The company says that problem arises from just throwing an equation at students and asking them to solve it.

In contrast, MidSchoolMath draws students into computer games created with digital animation and live video filmed with real actors. That allows kids to directly participate in adventures, like traveling to Mars on a rocket, navigating the open seas on ancient ships, or dealing with problems in the time of the Black Plague.

The programs ask students to resolve math problems in the stories, such as figuring out how big the cannons and cannon balls must be on a sea vessel to repel attacking pirates, balancing a scale properly on a spice-trading ship, or setting a dial accurately on a Mars rover to correct its positioning.

The company has developed 139 different simulations that together address 136 core math standards required for middle schoolers. Different sets of questions and challenges are posed to students based on grade levels.

EdReports puts the curriculum from each publisher that submits material through lengthy, rigorous reviews. That process spanned more than a year for MidSchoolMath, culminating in perfect scores in all categories evaluated for each different grade level.

“EdReports is generally considered to be the central, most-credible source for high quality instructional materials,” Laidlaw said. “Every single one of the big publishers – all of them – go through EdReports.”

To get a perfect score is a huge endorsement.

“It provides strong assurance to any school district in the country that your curriculum can meet the needs and expectations of teachers and students any place in the nation,” Laidlaw said.

The company built its curriculum and the technology behind it with $4.3 million in funding from a broad array of state and federal agencies and organizations, including the U.S. Department of Education and the National Science Foundation. To date, it’s earned about $3 million in revenue from its products and services, which it licenses out to school districts and individual schools, said Lightwood, the company’s chief financial officer.

“It’s an entirely cloud-based, online system for schools that we built from the ground up,” Lightwood said. “We believe it has the potential for large-scale, national impact.”

The New Mexico Public Education Department selected MidSchoolMath in December 2019 for inclusion on its official list of instructional materials that schools and school districts can choose from to teach the state’s fifth- to eight-graders core math standards. To date, 28 local middle schools have adopted the curriculum, including 11 school districts around the state, Lightwood said.

That includes Santa Fe Public Schools, which decided in 2020 to license the curriculum for the next six years, said Erica Wheeler, the district’s instructional materials coordinator.

“MidSchoolMath is so engaging for mid-schoolers,” Wheeler told the Journal. “It’s designed for big groups, small groups, peers and individual learning. We’re switching up our pedagogy for a more student-centered teaching approach, and MidSchoolMath really facilitates that.”

Kevin Robinson-Avila covers technology, energy, venture capital and utilities for the Journal. He can be reached at krobinson-avila@abqjournal.com.

 




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