District Two: Five Years of Change and Still Counting

 Math  NY  Elementary  Middle School

Original Vision

In District 2, our original goals included:

  • Changing beliefs about mathematics and teaching mathematics and deepening mathematical content knowledge for the 1,200 K-8 teachers in the district.
  • Aligning exemplary curricula to high performance standards and rigorous assessments.
  • Improving student outcomes by building the capacity of teachers to refine their teaching through continuously assessing students' progress relative to the performance standards from K through high school.
  • Engaging essential stakeholders (parents, teachers, students, administrators and other community members) in promoting, supporting and sustaining systemic math reform that resulted in conceptual understanding and robust application.

We have successfully used a number of strategies to build capacity and support among our constituents, and to ensure the sustainability of our Initiative. We have learned that the work is complex, difficult, never-ending, unpredictable and sometimes polarizing.

On-site, in classroom coaching was the main vehicle for transforming mathematics instruction. Our first goal was to build capacity in this area. We focused on hiring high caliber outside consultants and nurturing the potential talents of people from within the district. We built a cadre of 16 full time staff developers and more than 70 teacher leaders over the course of 7 years. We initially focused our energies in a few select schools and expanded over time.

Unit-specific all-day workshops supporting new teachers: These workshops, focusing on the structure of the curriculum units (Investigations or CMP), helped teachers see the big mathematical ideas by engaging in the activities that students would be doing in the course of the unit.

Workshops focusing on strands of mathematics supporting experienced teachers: As teachers gained experience in teaching the curricula, we began offering workshops that spanned units and/or grades. The focus of these workshops was the development of big mathematical ideas in children over the course of time. These workshops addressed issues such as the development of place value in the early grades, the development of fraction concepts over time, connections between geometry and number, the development of measurement concepts in the early grades, the use of graphing calculators.

Parent events: Parents were curious and concerned when their children began coming home with mathematics that looked nothing like what they had experienced in school. They began asking many questions and seeking many answers. Parent Nights were held all over the district on a variety of topics such as Why Change the Way We Teach Mathematics, How to Help Your Child with Homework, Alignment of the Curriculum to State and City Testing, Why Play Games, specific mathematical strands (whole number operations, fractions, data, geometry). Parents raised questions that made us reconsider our stance in some areas, especially in thinking about the role of computational fluency. In addition to parent evenings, we have held Saturday workshops for parents and their children, offering support for struggling students as well as those who excel.

After-School Providers: Schools reported that the community-based after-school services provided throughout the district were asking questions about the math homework that students were receiving. Teachers noticed the work students were given in the after school programs in mathematics was different from the work we were promoting in the schools. In response, we began to dialog with several after-school and summer day care providers in the Chinatown area in particular, inviting the after-school teachers to visit school mathematics classrooms, to attend workshops; and then providing workshops for after-school program instructors on how to help students with homework. We extended this to a comprehensive support structure for summer day camp classrooms, where math was being taught.

Content Focused Coaching supporting staff developers and teacher leaders: We knew that we had to focus our efforts on building the skill sets required by teacher leaders and staff developers in supporting teachers to make the necessary changes in instruction. We developed a process now known as Content-Focused Coaching with support from the Institute for Learning. This model of collaborative lesson planning, implementation and debriefing was implemented to varying degrees by all of the coaches and teacher leaders in the district. The tools developed in this process were also used to design our workshops and professional development institutes. The work revolves around a set of learning principles, a theory of effort-based intelligence, and is applied to the science of professional development.

Collaboration sites: Early in the initiative we developed two sites in elementary schools that were used as hubs to bring teams of teachers from around the district to plan, observe, and debrief lessons from the adopted curriculum: Investigations in Number, Data and Space. Small cadres of teachers and their coach visited collaboration sites from schools around the district. There were generally 20-30 teachers at any one visit. The host teacher sat with visitors on the same grade level to describe her plan, briefing the visitors on the student's prior knowledge and the teacher's ideas for implementation. The visitors were invited to offer suggestions. Then the visitors then watched the lesson in the host's classroom. All participants debriefed the lesson over lunch. They then examined the student work from the lesson and helped plan a follow-up lesson. Later the visiting teachers met with their respective coaches to plan implementation of the observed lessons in their respective schools. The coach's participation in this assured built-in follow-up. This was the precursor to lesson study.

Lesson Study for coaches, teachers and administrators: About two and a half years ago, we began to look at the Japanese Lesson Study as a model for professional development. Beginning with middle school staff developers and teacher leaders, we began to think of planning and executing lessons collaboratively. Teachers gathered to extensively plan a forthcoming lesson with an overarching goal in mind. In District 2, we chose upcoming lessons from our own curriculum which we were interested in exploring more deeply. As the lesson is taught for the first time, all of the planners, as well as anyone else interested, are invited to attend. At the conclusion of the first lesson, the planners have an opportunity to discuss the lesson in terms of their plan. What worked? What didn't work? What was evidence of student understanding? As a result of this discussion, the plan is modified.

The new, modified lesson is taught by a second teacher, again with all planners and invited guests present. This is followed by a debriefing session to discuss the effect the changes had on student learning. This focused observation allows colleagues to view a lesson in which all had a stake, putting the onus for success on the lesson planned rather than on the teacher teaching it.

Lenses on Learning for administrators: From the beginning of the initiative we understood that principals would be key players in the reform efforts. We worked with principals in a variety of venues towards this end. We were given time at monthly principal meetings to work on mathematics together, to view video clips of classes or to study student work against the standards, etc. Thanks to EDC, there is now a set of courses designed to help administrators become instructional leaders. Lenses on Learning gave us a more coherent way to do this work. By introducing Lenses on Learning to our administrators, we have increased their capacity to make observations that are meaningful of classrooms in their buildings. Administrators who have gone through one module or more will focus on content, pedagogy and classroom climate, looking for evidence of student learning. In addition, we often hold our principal meetings at schools, which enables us to visit math classes together and then debrief and reflect on these classes. At individual schools, coaches and principals visit a math class together as a way of helping a principal gain clarity about what effective mathematics instruction looks, sounds, and feels like. These are non-evaluative visits aimed at strengthening the learning triangle of teacher, coach, principal.

REFLECTIONS: Our initial workshops focused on helping teachers new to the curricula understand the structure of the units and the components of a typical mathematics lesson. The workshops also addressed issues such as pacing, homework and preparation for standardized testing.

The later workshops focusing on specific math content were particularly helpful to teachers who had entered the change process and were interested in exploring concepts across grades. Teachers began to recognize which ideas were being introduced in their grade, which were being developed and when they could expect students to master a concept. They could now teach mathematics at a more realistic pace since they were not looking for mastery of every concept embedded in the curriculum. Teachers could also assess students more critically and begin to use the assessments to differentiate instruction.

As the change process took hold, most parents became great supporters, attending School Board meetings and writing. A small group of parents raised strong objections to the reform initiative. They were sophisticated and well organized, using media and public events, raising doubt and anxiety among parents and teachers. Consequently, we were forced to expend considerable energy addressing this anxiety. Although this derailed us from our larger mission, the efforts also yielded positive results. We became more explicit and clear about our focus. We examined our data to ensure we were addressing skills as well as concepts. We wrote a newsletter for parents articulating our philosophy and answering questions.

Initially, we had not really considered the impact of after-school programs on the mathematics reform efforts and came to realize that we needed to address this. This is a long, slow process and we are slowly finding common ground. Time and personnel have not been available to any large degree for these efforts. Introducing Lesson Study enabled Us to move the emphasis away from the curriculum as script to a tool in planning. In the first year, lesson study was done only by Middle School teacher leaders and staff developers. In Lesson Study, middle school teachers saw the potential for revolutionizing the way teachers view their craft. The emphasis was firmly on student learning.

After the success of middle school teachers, lesson study was introduced to elementary school staff developers and teacher leaders. During the 2001-2002 school year, every grade in the district prepared one lesson study lesson. Centered on the curriculum, teachers chose lessons that they felt were crucial to student understanding and thought about how to improve the lessons by being extremely explicit about the mathematical goals of the lesson, changing the questions for students, preparing different visuals, and/or changing to a context that would resonate with students. All of this was to prepare a lesson for specific students at a specific time.

In the 2002-2003 school year, we are bringing lesson study to classroom teachers via their staff developer or teacher leader. Our overarching goal, for all of District 2, is the principle of self-management. In our planning, teachers are seeking ways for their students to become self-reliant. In the process of planning, our teachers are becoming self-reliant.

Lesson study provides many valuable opportunities for teachers:

  • Collaborating on planning a lesson that belongs to oneself and all one's colleagues.
  • Time and opportunity to explore the mathematical content of a lesson
  • Time and opportunity to explore good pedagogy
  • Time and opportunity to discuss and observe the role of good instruction in classroom management
  • Having the luxury of watching the lesson unfold in someone else's classroom is invaluable.
  • Reworking a lesson and then seeing the revised lesson improve student learning
  • Being a planner, but not a study lesson teacher, and then trying that same lesson in your own classroom

Teachers who have participated in lesson study in mathematics are enthusiastic about the process and are eager to repeat it.

The Future: New York City Public Schools are in the process of extreme reorganization. In January, the chancellor's office announced uniform curricula to be implemented across the city. In February, the chancellor announced 208 schools (out of 1200 schools in New York City's 32 Community School Districts) that were deemed exemplary and exempt from the uniform curricula. In Community District 2, where uniform curricula had been in place for more than 4 years, 20 out of 26 elementary schools and 3 middle schools were included on the list of 208 exemplary schools. Of those, all but 1 school have chosen to continue using the Investigations and CMP curricula.

District 2 will be folded into Region 9 and it is unclear how the Region will be organized or managed at this time.