To meet current math standards like the Louisiana Student Standards for Mathematics or the Common Core State Standards, it is no longer enough for students to simply memorize how to do something. They must demonstrate a deeper understanding and be able to explain the “why” behind the “how.”
In Caddo Parish (LA) Public Schools (CPPS), our schools are very diverse, and nearly 70 percent of our students are economically disadvantaged. As in many other districts, our efforts to improve student achievement were hindered by curriculum materials that were not tightly aligned with the new standards and often lacked the tasks, norms, and routines needed to create problem-solving classrooms.
While it may not seem like a big stretch to move to a problem-based curriculum since problems are a fundamental part of math instruction, many teachers (including me) were not taught in the way that the standards now require us to teach. We can no longer show students how to solve two or three sample problems and then ask them to solve 10 to 20 problems on their own. To help them become college and career ready, we need to get them thinking about math concepts in a deeper way and actively engage them in meaningful discussions and problem solving.
Here are a few strategies we have implemented to help teachers make this shift, as well as a few lessons learned along the way.
Collect teacher feedback to ensure buy-in and improve fidelity.
After the new standards were adopted, we purchased a new standards-aligned math curriculum. It was not implemented with fidelity, however, because teachers found it difficult to use. A year later, we tried another curriculum that was more flexible and easier to use, but it was not tightly aligned to our standards so our test scores remained flat.
After reviewing instructional materials rated as Tier 1 standards-aligned resources by the Louisiana Department of Education, we decided to try Open Up Resources 6–8 Math, an open educational resource (OER) authored by Illustrative Mathematics (IM). Choosing an OER turned out to be a great way to garner teacher buy-in, which is essential to the success of any instructional program.
To prepare for a potential adoption in our middle schools in 2018–19, we provided teachers with detailed information about the curriculum, including reviews by independent organizations such as EdReports.org. In fall 2017, we formed teacher committees and solicited feedback. Over winter break, I added links from lessons in the new curriculum to our district’s scope and sequence documents. At a CPPS professional development day in February 2018, I showed teachers a lesson and we walked through an activity. I also asked our teachers to try at least one lesson in their classrooms during the upcoming spring semester and provide feedback on a Google Form. These teacher testimonies provided a lot of momentum when we made the decision to adopt the curriculum district-wide.
Provide as much professional learning as you can.
In June and July of 2018, we offered a two-day professional learning session with IM Certified facilitators. One of the things that made the experience so effective was that the facilitators asked teachers to participate in the lessons as both teachers and students. As teachers worked through the problems themselves, they developed a greater understanding of how to prepare their instruction to actively engage students in the math. We do not think we could have made the shift to a problem-based curriculum without this type of professional learning.
We also invited paraprofessional educators to a two-hour workshop on the new curriculum and it was a resounding success. This school year, several teachers have told me that our paraprofessionals are more involved simply because they had a chance to review and work through the material.
To provide ongoing support, we offer professional learning throughout the year. In October, I held a district-wide video conference using the Zoom platform. During this hour-long session, our middle school math teachers shared their challenges and successes, which gave me ideas for future professional learning topics. At CPPS’s next professional development day in January 2019, we will host a mini-conference that will focus on strengthening teachers’ content knowledge in areas where students are struggling, based on our assessment data. As with the summer training, IM Certified facilitators will join us in this effort.
In addition, each month we offer a two-hour virtual session to provide teachers with a deeper look into both the mathematics and routines within each unit of the curriculum at each grade level.
Changing math classrooms
As a result of our efforts, teachers now have a different idea of what math classrooms should look like. They understand that it is beneficial to engage students in productive struggle and to promote discourse and collaboration to help them develop their mathematical thinking skills. They see how real-world contexts and connections are increasing students’ interest in math. When I visit classrooms, I see students making connections between concepts and procedures, rather than simply memorizing procedures.
I realize that as a math supervisor I may be biased, but I believe math is the most important thing we teach and that students learn a great deal about problem solving in general by problem solving in math. Our goal is to not only improve achievement in math but to help students develop the skills to become productive citizens. By moving to a problem-based curriculum and providing teachers with the resources they need to make that shift, we are well on our way.