review

Is ST Math All It’s Cracked Up to Be?

By
Alice Barton

Ever since I started writing for EdSurge, I've been hearing about ST Math—from teachers, from entrepreneurs, and from non-edtech individuals who had heard that the tool was popular. “Popular” may be an understatement: ST Math, a product of nonprofit MIND Research Institute, has been around for 20 years, and as of this May, 800,000 students, 31,000 teachers and 2,500 schools in 40 states have used the tool.

When it comes to effectiveness, an October 2014 WestEd study found that students in grades 2, 3, and 5 that fully implemented the ST Math program had significantly higher mean mathematics scale scores on the CST compared to the CST scores of students who did not use ST Math. According to MIND Research Institute’s Matt Feldmann, ST Math users “routinely see two to three times the growth on standardized tests” as non-users.

But does ST Math live up to the standards of both teachers and administrators?

Every product has its pros and cons. While ST Math’s conceptual math instruction may be engaging and effective, some educators have concerns about issues involved with implementing ST Math. Here’s what educators had to share.

What Works

Conceptually-based, applicable components

ST Math is a series of online math programs (primarily for grades K to 6 but it includes programming for 7th grade to high school, as well) best used as a supplement to classroom instruction. ST Math's distinguishing selling point centers on the “ST” in its name, an abbreviation for the “spatial-temporal” reasoning that the program uses to teach math concepts. In other words, all lessons are first taught visually, without the use of language, numbers or symbols. Take, for example, a units lesson where “tens” are represented by full flowers, but “ones” are represented by individual petals (see photo to the right).

“It's visual, no text, and really conceptually helpful and clear--mathematically, really sound,” reports Jennie Magiera, Digital Learning Coordinator at the Academy for Urban School Leadership. “It's my favorite content-based math app.”

In a 2013 Getting Smart article, writer and former teacher Megan Mead described ST Math as one of her favorite “supplementary elementary programs” because it “teaches math WITHOUT words.” And when prompted, most of the other educators agree, describing the tool’s “conceptual” approach as a positive, especially with younger students.

Sundar Chari, Director of Innovation & Technology at Education for Change Public Schools (EFCPS) describes ST Math as “pedagogically sound” while fellow educator, Precious James, a 6th grade teacher, added that using ST Math has improved her students’ use of math strategies.

“In the beginning, I didn't know if it was helping at all. But since we've been using it for so long, kids are using a lot of the strategies from the program and applying them to their school work,” James explains.

Ellen Dorr, Learning Technology Manager for Highline Public Schools, has also chronicled her observations of students using concepts they’ve learned in ST Math outside of the program, especially in standards-based instruction. For instance: “The same week that students worked on multiplication and division in ST Math, the class learned about the distributive property, which prompted the comment, ‘Oh, I’ve done that,’ which improved mastery of that standard,” she wrote in a blogpost.

Engaging presentation, especially for younger kids

Teachers also frequently say that ST Math keeps students’ attention--often longer than other comparable programs.

“ST Math has been a great addition to our math program K-6. The kids are highly engaged,” says Tom Baird, K-12 Math Curriculum Supervisor at Windsor Public Schools. Alpha Public Schools’ Will Eden agrees: “It’s the most engaging program in terms of how long kids can be on the program. People seem to find that across the board.”

Some educators credit ST Math’s game-like environment, while others point to JiJi, the ST Math host penguin, as a positive influence. “In 6th grade, they love JiJi,” says Education for Change Public Schools’s James, “and they feel like they have someone playing the game with them.”

And while some educators do identify that Jiji and the animations are more suitable for younger students (specifically those in elementary school) than older students, those educators who sing ST Math’s praises do it enthusiastically.

“What I enjoy is that the program meets kids where they are; they're never underwhelmed by the program,” James explains.

What’s Problematic

The data dashboard

Not every tool is perfect. But in ST Math’s case, certain issues have been frustrating enough for educators including charter school principals Brandon Phenix and Alpha’s Will Eden to not renew their ST Math contracts. Here’s why.

“One of the big frustrations I have is the way ST Math presents data,” says Phenix, who was involved with a three-year ST Math contract in his previous edtech coordinator role at ReNEW Schools in New Orleans. “Their data dashboard is a nightmare; it’s too simplistic, in the way they represent the students that are struggling, and the reports are also cumulative, meaning I can't look at individual days or weeks.”

Other educators agreed on this point, with EFCPS’s Director of Innovation & Technology Sundar Chari also speaking from an administrator perspective. “The reports are a bit simpler, and are not necessarily as useful at the administrator level as they are at the teacher level.”

ST Math representatives say that the data dashboard hasn’t been redesigned since 2012 but that they’re looking into the next iteration. “We're actively investigating with teachers--what objectives they want with their standards, we also provide weekly exports of where they're at,” reports Matt Feldmann, ‎Director of Product Management at MIND Research Institute. “One of the thing we try to provide is helping to make the data actionable--that's where a lot of our partners are looking to expand in that space.”

The need for teacher involvement

How much involvement should teachers expect as part of using ST Math? When asked, several of the educators seem surprised by just how much support they need to provide when students are on the platform.

“You do need a teacher in the room to supervise… you really need the teacher there, especially when the kids need help,” Chari says.

“For the first few months, every kid went into 'teacher mode'” when they weren’t supposed to, James reports, “and kids also needed a teacher to explain sometimes because there are no words on the program.”

Brandon Phenix mentioned both the instructional activities and the password protocol as areas where teachers needed to be involved more than he originally anticipated: “Kids have to sequentially click on 16 pictures [for the password protocol], but they forget that stuff.”

ST Math only allows schools to purchase licenses if they also buy professional development services. Jim Lund, VP of Education Success, says that PD trainers are told to talk about teacher involvement. “We know through research that instruction is much stronger when there's a qualified teacher. For that reason, during the implementation process, we make sure it's very clear that teachers need to facilitate in the lab.”

Even so not all users seem to be clear on what a teacher needs to be doing when students are using the program. “We know that we need to do more work to help teachers understand how to use ST Math as a supplement or complement to existing math instruction and to empower teachers as the experts in blending those components,” says Highline’s Ellen Dorr. 

Slow response on user-requested changes

The biggest frustration from those canceling their ST Math contracts centers on customer service.

"They're responsive when you have immediate questions or confusion about the program, but they're slow to making actual technical changes to the program based on what we want," Chari shares. "From an implementation standpoint, I definitely think there are things that ST Math can do better... but they're a bit slower to make technical changes because they have a good reputation in the blended area."

MIND Research Institute doesn’t release details about its customer retention rate. VP Jim Lund does say that the company has a “ ticketing system” for complaints, “and every time someone calls in, we keep track in a CRM.”

Perhaps, then, Chari is a unique case. But talk to more educators, and there are other instances where administrators needed certain information or features at the beginning of the school year--yet were met with resistance.

“We just consistently found an imperviousness to feedback,” shares Eden, who isn’t renewing Alpha’s ST Math contract. “When we went through the provisioning process with them, it was a total nightmare. For example, they have their own external roster management software, at least in our experience. Originally, they sent me PC-only software. I complained because we only have Macs, so they sent me a Mac version of the software with no instructions on how to use it. When I expressed my frustration, they responded with, 'You guys are the only ones who have ever had this problem.’”

Principal Brandon Phenix had a similar experience, specifically relating to integration. Last September and October, Phenix experienced three to four integration problems with ST Math, including how clunky roster management led to slow update procedures, rendering the system essentially unusable for a month. “Whenever we have a new student, you have to send ST Math a file of a new kid. That can take anywhere from three days to a week,” Phenix explains--and a week in school year terms feels like a lifetime.

What Other Companies Can Learn

Both Eden and Phenix share that they’ve decided to switch to other math programs (Phenix has chosen i-Ready, for example), primarily based on a loss of faith due to problematic customer service. And even current users like Chari and James concede that they wish ST Math was quicker to support educator needs and to integrate more easily into a school’s daily procedures. “Based on these lessons learned, if we can't get that implementation right, it might not make sense to continue with it,” says Chari.

The ST Math team says changes are coming--and that what will stay constant is their commitment to helping students. “We're going to continue to innovate, we're actively testing new ideas,” Feldmann says. “Our mission is ensure that all students are mathematically equip to handle the world’s challenges.”

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