“What Is Good Teaching?” Series: Grade School Algebra Adds Up To Better Test Scores

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Knoxville, Tenn. – Darrell Threet’s lived in rural Cumberland County most of his life. He says some families here live on less than $10,000 dollars a year.

“It’s kids living in real poverty,” he says.

Threet’s the principal of South Cumberland Elementary School. You’ll usually find him in the hallways, carrying a beat-up old Algebra One book stuffed with loose photocopies. The book might seem out of place in an elementary school; algebra is a high school math course. But Threet’s fourth-graders are tackling algebraic equations.

Darrell Threet hands out photocopies of an old high school algebra book to students in his sixth grade algebra class.

“We just go real, real slow and hopefully by the time we get to the eighth grade most of ‘em’s got the majority of the algebra they’ll need for the rest of their life,” he says.

Threet left his full-time jobs as a coach and teacher behind when he became a principal. But he teaches and coaches part-time, and even as a principal, he still leads like a coach.

“If I’m gonna be judged on how many times I can jump over that line in 30 seconds, I’d better be practicing jumping over that line in 30 seconds. And that’s what I told our teachers … if I’m gonna be tested over something I better be studying what I’m gonna be tested on,” he says.

The strategy’s paying off. South Cumberland Elementary’s made big gains in test scores across the board. But Threet says he’s not teaching to help these kids do better on tests.

“There’s so much more that teachers do and people do, rather than what shows up on a test. “There’s so much more to life than test scores,” Threet says. “Because the kid that maybe didn’t do so well, he may end up having a good job, and if he can support his family and do that – how do you define success? And how do you track that? I really don’t know. I know the state’s wanting to do it through test scores. And there’s so much more that teachers do and people do, rather than what shows up on a test.”

That may be why in Darrell Threet’s algebra class, there are no wrong answers. Students have two days to retake tests for a better grade. But just getting a passing grade is not the most important goal for many of these students. Assistant Principal Becky Brown says a lot of them study hard just to make Threet proud.

“They look forward to him coming in and they look forward to his tests,” Brown says. “I know when I’ve got basketball study hall, they’re like – ‘Oh we have a Mr. Threet test tomorrow; we better study and know what’s going on.”

Brown says she thinks the time Threet spends with students outside of a busy administrative schedule shows how much helping them succeed means to him.

“He doesn’t expect the kids to pick up some of these concepts real easily,” she says. “And I think that that amount of time and that amount of caring does make him an amazing teacher.”

Students work on algebra quizzes at South Cumberland Elementary school in Crossville, Tennessee.

I ask Threet’s sixth-grade algebra class, “Is [Mr. Threet] a good teacher?”

“YES,” they chorus.

“Why is that?” I ask.

“He’s awesome! He helps a lot! He lets you retake the quizzes!” they shout, all chiming in at once.

An interview with Darrell Threet’s Sixth Grade Class

Sydney Clark is an eighth grader. She believes Threet’s a good teacher because he takes time to explain everything.

“If you’re a bad teacher, then you just give the kids their work and tell them their grades,” she says. “If you’re a good teacher, you explain it and if they get something wrong and they don’t know what to do, then you make sure you tell them what and make sure they understand what’s wrong.”

Darrell Threet keeps class sizes small and offers after-school tutoring to give teachers more time to connect individually with their students.

“As long as the teacher’s in there teaching the skills they’re supposed to be teaching, they’re gonna do good. But if they can get the kids on their side, and the kids wanting to do good, then they’re gonna become a great teacher. They gotta have that rapport to get the kids to say, yeah, I’ll do as best I can for this person cause they like me and they treat me well,” he says.

Becky Brown says Threet supports his teachers and staff well, too. He provides them with mentors, extra trainings and social events to help build a team spirit and keep staff morale up when kids come to school without breakfast – school supplies – or clothes that fit.

“We know more about each other than just what happens at school. We’re a little closer than that. And I think that really helps us come together to help the kids,” she says.

South Cumberland’s been a sports powerhouse for a long time in Cumberland County. And the same principles that win games on the field or on the court are working in the classrooms. Threet asks his students to push themselves and believe in their abilities. And he tells them whatever their win in life is – whether it’s driving a backhoe or a BMW – he’ll coach them from the sidelines as long they need him to.

Take a quick look inside Darrell Threet’s algebra classes:

South Cumberland Elementary School was nominated for an award last year from the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. Watch the video here:

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