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Building Leadership Capacity to Improve Math Teaching and Learning: Lessons from the Math in Common Initiative

September 1, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has required educators to make a seismic shift to distance learning, first on an emergency basis early in the crisis, and now with some amount of pre-planning in fall 2020. Many educators are concerned that distance learning exacerbates students' inability to access and engage in high-quality math learning. Educators are particularly concerned about learning for the groups of students that, prior to the pandemic, were already performing less well than average on the state math achievement test: Black students, English learner students, and students with disabilities.Before COVID-19, there was already a growing awareness that school site leaders' instructional leadership could be critical for raising student achievement. The pandemic further highlighted the potential for targeted leadership development to improve math teaching and learning in California schools at a moment when achievement gaps could be widening.Findings from WestEd's evaluation of a seven-year initiative called Math in Common may offer some useful insights at this time. Math in Common was organized to support 10 California districts in effectively implementing the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (CCSS-M) across grades K-8. A key part of the effort to improve math teaching and learning in these districts involved providing leadership development opportunities for many types of district and school leaders — from teacher leaders and instructional coaches to principals and district administrators — to help them understand and support the math content and instruction that teachers are expected to use.In this brief, we offer three recommendations for how educators in California and beyond should conceptualize new leadership development opportunities to support math improvement - during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond. We offer these recommendations to a broad audience of educators, administrators, and policymakers concerned with building leaders' capacity for school improvement, including representatives from county offices of education, district central offices, the California Subject Matter Projects, the newly formed California Leadership academies, and leadership associations such as the Association for California School Administrators. To ground our recommendations, we begin with some brief background on the CCSS-M and the Math in Common initiative.

Building Capacity for Improving California Mathematics Teaching and Learning: How the Math in Common Districts Leveraged Three Types of Expertise

January 1, 2020

Imagine a school district administrator in the fictional California district of "Rosewood," who is concerned about her 5th grade students' proficiency in math. Fifth grade math achievement scores have been static in the district and teachers say that many 5th graders are struggling with multiplication, even though it was supposed to be introduced in 3rd grade through the California Common Core State Standards: Mathematics (CCSS-M). Rosewood's district math team has tried to address principals' and teachers' concerns with multiplication, but those efforts don't seem to be moving the needle for students. The Rosewood administrator is ready to dedicate more resources toward improving 5th grade student math learning, and wants to be efficient in seeking technical assistance (TA) to help solve this district challenge. How might this administrator go about identifying and obtaining relevant and appropriate technical assistance?Under California's funding structures, districts have autonomy to purchase technical assistance in prioritized need areas.1 That freedom can be both a blessing and curse, as there are thousands of consultants, nonprofits, and resources available in the multimillion-dollar technical assistance marketplace -- almost all of which promise to help districts solve their problems, but very few of which have been vetted by any authority.The 10 districts in the Math in Common (MiC) community of practice regularly faced the kind of scenario unfolding in Rosewood. That is, they often needed to seek out TA to help them address issues related to implementing the CCSS-M -- ranging from improving the alignment of their textbooks' lessons, to supporting better standards-aligned instruction for English learners, to reconfiguring teacher professional learning communities (PLCs) to help teachers effectively implement the standards. But unlike most California school districts, MiC participants received significant support on making TA decisions through MiC's community of practice. Their experience highlights a major issue in standards implementation across the state: Districts need to be thoughtful, and well supported, in identifying and accessing TA that will help them bring standards to life in their local contexts and ultimately improve student achievement.As MiC's evaluator, WestEd examined districts' experiences with standards implementation in a comprehensive series of formative and summative evaluation reports spanning 2013-2019. This brief summarizes our learning from these reports on the successes and challenges that districts encountered.

Balancing Site Autonomy and District Priorities for Sustained Mathematics Progress: Three School Case Studies from the Math in Common Initiative

October 1, 2019

From 2013-2018, the Math in Common (MiC) initiative supported 10 California school districts as they began implementation of the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics. The districts received funding as well as access to a community of practice (CoP) to explore and share improvement strategies for math instruction and systems change. Beginning in the 2018-19 school year, the CoP entered a second phase in which funding continued at a reduced rate for districts to sustain their work as a community.To understand the reach of MiC districts' math improvement efforts, WestEd has been conducting teacher focus groups and principal interviews at schools in MiC districts for a series of case studies about implementing and sustaining district-level improvement efforts. Data collection is ongoing, but analysis of findings from our first set of conversations with teachers and principals have identified one common and compelling story about the ongoing challenges of education change in districts.This report focuses on two districts facing significant internal and external forces that challenge coherent and sustained districtwide focus on mathematics improvement and explores how these forces impact educators at three different school sites in those districts.Readers knowledgeable about the history of education change efforts will recognize the familiar tale of how difficult long-term improvement can be in decentralized district systems. At the same time, these examples offer hope that improvement work can persist from year to year even in challenging circumstances.

Understanding Complex Instructional Change: Classroom Observations of Math in Common Districts

January 1, 2019

Although mathematics standards have changed dramatically in recent years, teaching mathematics is as complex as it has always been. Some would argue that mathematics teaching has become even more complex, with the implementation of the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (CCSS-M) (NGA Center & CCSSO, 2010), as teachers are being asked to make significant shifts in their instruction.1 Teachers report that they are incorporating math standards into their daily practice and are feeling positive about their efforts to do so (Reade, Perry, & Heredia, 2018; Perry, Marple, & Reade, 2017), but the education field still has little empirical documentation on exactly how math teachers are shifting their classroom instruction to align with the CCSS-M. Exactly what are math teachers doing in their classrooms to help students master the standards?Part of the reason for the lack of data is the challenge of accurately measuring what happens during classroom instruction. The only real way to know what is happening in classrooms is through direct observation, and while it may be possible to get the gist of math classes through quick "drop-in" observations, it is ideal, for a systemic understanding of change, to use a valid and reliable observation instrument tied to specific elements of instruction. This sort of targeted instrument enables observers to obtain meaningful data and identify patterns in instruction across different lessons and teachers.Regardless of who carries out these observations and analyzes the resulting data -- teachers, principals, district staff, or partners from a research institution -- it is challenging and time-consuming work. But this work is essential in order to gain knowledge of how the standards are being implemented in classrooms to support all students in achieving mastery of the CCSS-M. Without understanding of how teachers and students are responding to the standards, it is impossible to know what supports and course changes are still needed, from either a district perspective or a policy perspective. Additionally, we frequently hear that there are not enough real-life examples of what the CCSS-M look like in classrooms when implemented well. Without examples of high-quality, standards-aligned instruction, it is difficult for educators to imagine how the standards should look and feel in their own classrooms, or to gauge their own progress. Carefully documented classroom observations can be a source of these sorts of real-world examples of standards-aligned instruction.The Math in Common (MiC) initiative was launched to support CCSS-M implementation in grades K-8 in 10 California school districts. As part of its evaluation of MiC, WestEd conducted classroom observations in participating MiC districts to document K-8 teachers' instructional shifts related to the CCSS-M. The research staff visited elementary and middle school classrooms in nine MiC school districts, during the 2015-16, 2016-17, and 2017-18 academic years, to observe and analyze mathematics lessons, using an observation protocol adapted for this project. Participants from MiC teams often joined us during the observations and debriefed with us afterwards.Our preliminary learning from these classroom observation data was publicly reported in a blog post characterizing common structural features of highly rated lessons (Seago & Perry, 2017) and in case studies of incremental change in teacher practice over time (Seago & Carroll, 2018). This report describes additional analyses of observation data on eight dimensions of classroom mathematics instruction. These analyses are drawn from our complete set of classroom observation data: 201 lesson observations, representing more than 130 hours of observation over three years. We begin the report by describing our classroom observation protocol and the dimensions of classroom instruction that we observed using this protocol. We then present our findings on the instructional variability that we saw across classrooms and districts. Next, drawing on classroom transcripts and observation data, we discuss what highly rated classrooms looked like across the various dimensions that we observed, and how administrators and others can support this sort of CCSS-M-aligned instruction. The report concludes with several recommendations for conducting effective classroom observations.Our primary goal with this report is to share with teachers and administrators what we have learned about how particular elements of CCSS-M-aligned instruction look and feel when implemented effectively in the classroom. We also wish to stimulate discussion in the field about what kinds of information can best help educators understand standards implementation, and to share emerging insights from our experience trying to measure shifts in mathematics instruction.

What Accelerates a Community of Practice? Inflection Points That Changed the Course of the Math in Common Initiative

January 1, 2019

Establishing professional communities of educators from districts and schools has gained popularity as a mechanism for collaboratively thinking through and enacting change in education. Modeled on successful practices in business and healthcare, education-focused networks embody the belief that "learning is better together" (Bryk, Gomez, Grunow, & LeMahieu, 2015) -- that a group of organizations or individuals can learn more quickly and effectively by working together than by working in isolation.In 2013, 10 California school districts received grant funding from the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation ("the Foundation") to participate in the Math in Common (MiC) initiative to support implementation of the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (CCSS-M) (NGA Center & CCSSO, 2010). The districts were located across the state, ranging in size and characteristics, from large urban districts to small rural districts. A portion of the grant funding to the districts was dedicated to enabling their participation in a community of practice (CoP) to "share lessons learned with each other [about implementing the CCSS-M] and participate in learning communities to share instructional materials and best practices" (S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, 2012).Rather than creating a "networked improvement community," whose collaborative work is driven by a very targeted and specific common problem of practice or improvement aim,1 MiC organized its CoP around collective learning about mathematics standards implementation in a very broad sense.The trajectory of the MiC CoP was guided by the convening organization, California Education Partners ("Ed Partners"), in response to direct engagement with the districts and their perceived needs over the course of the initiative. WestEd worked alongside Ed Partners and the districts, using evaluation findings to help hone the CoP's focus, ensure that the work was data-driven, and support capacity building. Figure 1 shows the participants in the MiC CoP.While it is difficult to condense the rich array of the initiative's activities into one linear timeline, it does seem that the initiative can be divided into two fairly distinct phases. This report describes how the MiC CoP gradually honed its focus over the first five years of the initiative. It begins by describing actions taken early in the initiative that laid important foundations for the CoP. During this first phase (2013-2015), Ed Partners devoted significant effort to developing the structure of the CoP, offering a range of potential focal ideas to the CoP, and building trusting relationships across the districts. The report's discussion of the second phase, building on these earlier efforts, highlights what we have identified as the seven most significant inflection points -- that is, points where the trajectory of the MiC CoP changed. These seven inflection points resulted from lessons learned from the earlier years and, in most cases, led to more productive collaborative work in the later years of the initiative, when work shifted from thinking broadly and generally about implementation to focusing far more specifically on classroom instruction and on how to achieve the mathematics instruction that districts were hoping for under the CCSS-M.Rather than providing a "how to" manual for CoPs, we intend for this report to describe the trajectory of the MiC CoP, including both its missteps and its successes, in the hope that designers or participants of other formal or informal CoPs can leverage the MiC experience and make progress more quickly in their own collaborations.

Roadblocks and Routes: Professional Development in Math in Common Districts

January 1, 2019

In their proposals to join the Math in Common (MiC) initiative, staff from each of the 10 participating districts acknowledged that the shifts required to implement the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (CCSS-M) (NGA Center & CCSSO, 2010) would be a huge lift for teachers. They knew that mathematics teachers would be required to take up new, sometimes foreign ways of doing their work with students. Learning to provide useful, impactful professional development (PD) to support teachers in this process would become a primary focus of MiC.Unfortunately, even before the challenge of supporting teachers' classroom instruction to implement the new, demanding standards, teacher PD had been shown to be only minimally impactful (Garet, Porter, Desimone, Birman, & Yoon, 2001; Garet et al., 2001; Gersten, Taylor, Keys, Rolfhus, & Newman-Gonchar, 2014). Because of teachers' very different experiences and expertise, districts can find challenges in providing the types of support that all teachers want, need, and find useful, and that will ultimately have positive impacts on student achievement. With regard to the CCSS-M, an even larger challenge was the scale of the shifts. The new standards meant that staff at every level of each district system, regardless of their experience, would need to build new understandings about mathematics content and about teaching and learning -- teachers as they supported their students, coaches and principals as they supported teachers, and district staff as they supported coaches and principals.In working to build the understandings of all of these different staff groups about implementing the CCSS-M, districts faced several common "roadblock" conditions -- specific challenges related to how to provide effective, scalable PD to staff, administrators, and teachers in support of CCSS-M implementation. Despite the challenges that they presented, these roadblocks also created rich environments for innovation, problem solving, and learning across the MiC community of practice.This report describes some of the more common roadblocks that MiC districts faced in their early years of CCSS-M implementation, and routes that the districts took around the roadblocks in order to support teacher and student learning. These descriptions of district PD efforts are not meant to provide comprehensive reporting of all PD offerings across all 10 MiC districts over the five-year initiative. Moreover, districts may have, and probably did, take multiple other routes to bypass similar roadblocks. However, we hope that other districts can learn from and adapt some of the more widely adopted and successful routes taken in the MiC districts. This report also includes brief vignettes, in The View from the Field text boxes, of districts' practices, to more clearly illustrate some of these roadblocks and the routes around them.

Educators Collaborating to Improve Mathematics: Three Structures That Mattered in Math in Common Districts

January 1, 2019

For school districts in California, just as one set of revolutionary new content standards is beginning to feel familiar, another deep change is brewing. Districts have now had more than five years to wrestle with how they implement the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (CCSS-M) (NGA Center & CCSSO, 2010). Many have made large-scale changes in their systems. However, state math assessment scores have remained flat, suggesting that many districts may still be in the early stages of understanding and implementing changes that are necessary to support instruction.This report describes how 10 districts participating in the Math in Common (MiC) initiative have approached implementation of the CCSS-M somewhat differently. To implement their district visions of the CCSS-M, each MiC district's MiC leadership team developed three critical collaborative structures. These structures enabled these districts' practitioners, administrators, and thought partners to meet to learn, interpret, and refine the ways they wanted to shift the dynamics of classroom instruction so that the new math standards could come to life in their classrooms.This new way of operating may have contributed to the "bright spots" that a few of these districts are demonstrating in relation to improving student mathematics achievement (Perry & Huang, 2019). In this report, we share this information so that other districts across the state may benefit from some of the implementation design lessons learned by these 10 districts, as CCSS-M implementation continues and as districts shift to the Next Generation Science Standards, which demand similarly profound changes in teaching and learning.

Developing Principals’ Instructional Leadership in Math in Common Districts

January 1, 2019

One of the major systems shifts that Math in Common (MiC) districts undertook in their work to implement the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (CCSS-M) was moving the locus of professional learning to school sites. Previously, the majority of districts' professional development for teachers and principals had occurred centrally, at large trainings planned by the district office. Because of the complexity and depth of the new standards, most districts found that these centralized trainings alone were inadequate for fully supporting teachers in making changes to their daily practice, and that professional learning needed to also happen in the context of teachers' daily practice, with teachers learning alongside their colleagues at their own school sites.In order to facilitate this shift and support teachers at school sites, districts needed principals to take a more involved role in instructional leadership at their schools. As part of this expanded leadership role, principals -- already some of the busiest people in any district system -- needed to be able to:- Understand the district's vision for instructional shifts in mathematics- Help communicate this vision to teachers- Prioritize mathematics improvement at their sites- Create time and space for teachers to work and learn together in the service of the new math standards- Spend time in classrooms to advise and support teachers on instructional shifts- Monitor, and gather evidence to understand, the quality of CCSS-M implementation and its outcomes for studentsUnfortunately, this list of activities is a big ask for principals, who already balance a variety of competing demands on their time and attention every day.In interviews, principals and district staff from MiC districts often said they felt that their districts encouraged more of a focus on literacy than on math, and that there was often no reliable structure in place to guarantee district math administrators an audience, let alone a relationship, with principals. Many principals had been out of the classroom since before the new math standards, or had never taught math at all, and thus were starting at a disadvantage in terms of understanding the content and instructional demands of the CCSS-M.Facing these challenges head-on, MiC districts pursued the shared goal of building and supporting principals' instructional leadership in many different ways, based on their organizational contexts. At the spring 2018 Leadership Convening, in order to understand districts' varying approaches throughout the initiative, WestEd evaluation staff asked the district MiC leadership teams to chart their districts' main activities in support of principals' instructional leadership in mathematics.For this report, we drew on the work that the leadership teams produced during the convening. We also analyzed the districts' yearly grant reports, which described work with principals; reviewed interviews with principals and leadership teams, conducted for various evaluation cycle reports throughout the initiative; and revisited results from our yearly teacher and administrator survey.

Instructional Materials: Who Makes the Choice? Findings from the Annual Survey on Implementing the Common Core State Standards in Mathematics

July 1, 2017

Curriculum matters, deeply, for student achievement and for districts to be able to achieve the Common Core State Standards (CCSS; Chingos & Whitehurst, 2012; O'Day & Smith, 2016). Curriculum is an essential element of successful mathematics instruction in any district; it is part of a system of instructional improvement, along with professional development and accountability assessment (National Research Council, 2001; Smith & O'Day, 1990).In the Math in Common (MiC) districts and across the state, curriculum decisions are initially made at two levels: the state makes recommendations and district leaders then make choices. Still a third level of decision making about curriculum involves individual teachers; in a national survey, four out of five math teachers reported changing more than half of their instructional materials in response to the CCSS (Kane, Owens, Marinell, Thal, & Staiger, 2016). Overall, enormous thought and effort across multiple levels of a district system go into identifying and curating instructional materials to guide instruction. These decisions are likely to have cumulative and widely varying implications for how instruction is organized within and across districts, schools, and classrooms to support student achievement.Seven years into implementation of the CCSS-M, sourcing and using appropriate, high-quality instructional materials is still a central concern for districts and teachers -- yet there is little information available about what decisions other districts have made and how these choices have played out for students. To understand how instructional materials support, and hinder, educators in their work, we looked at the qualitative and quantitative findings from WestEd's 2017 surveys of educators in the 10 MiC districts (which included over 2,000 teacher and 100 administrator respondents) as well as information gleaned from eight focus groups held with teachers and principals.Included is a summary of selected findings from the report as well as key takeaways and ideas for action.

How Teachers Judge the Quality of Instructional Materials: Selecting Instructional Materials, Brief 1 - Quality

January 1, 2017

How do teachers make informed decisions about selecting quality instructional materials that support positive outcomes for students?

Teachers' Perceptions and Practices Related to the Adoption of Instructional Materials: Selecting Instructional Materials, Brief 3 - Adoption

January 1, 2017

How do teachers make informed decisions about choosing quality instructional materials that support positive outcomes for students?

Why and How Teachers Choose to Supplement Adopted Materials: Selecting Instructional Materials, Brief 2 - Supplementation

January 1, 2017

How do teachers make informed decisions about choosing quality instructional materials that support positive outcomes for students?