Successful completion of algebra 1 is the gatekeeper to higher-level math and is required for virtually any education beyond high school. That makes math education an equity issue.
A 2019 article in the Journal for Research and Mathematics Education states, “It’s well documented that Black and Hispanic students are underrepresented in eighth-grade algebra courses. As such, access to algebra in eighth grade is a critical instance of inequality of opportunity to learn, leading some scholars to refer to it as one of the most pressing civil rights issues of our time.”
Traditionally, math instruction has required that students sit, listen and memorize facts. But are we failing our kids by clinging to outdated methodology? Can the math classroom be a joyful place where students feel empowered as capable and confident problem solvers? It’s not only possible but essential. Research strongly supports an approach to teaching that encourages inquiry, risk-taking, and engaging students in meaningful problems that give them opportunities to think and reason about mathematics.
Raising proficiency and closing existing learning gaps requires that educators implement modern, research-based practices to productively engage students in math concepts. Despite the large and growing amount of educational research to support this ambitious approach, research alone does not change practice. Washington University’s Institute for School Partnership (ISP) is partnering with St. Louis area educators to do just that, encouraging implementation and impact through mutual respect, dismantling barriers, and building on strengths.
In 2019, the ISP launched the Math314 program to offer innovative, collaborative professional development designed to rebuild and modernize math instruction. This year, the Math314 team began partnerships with three regional school districts – Maplewood-Richmond Heights, Ritenour, and Mehlville – to examine current instructional practices and find spaces for meaningful improvement. Despite barriers caused by the pandemic, all three school districts were unswayed in their commitment to this work.
STEMpact District Immersion
The ISP’s STEMpact District Immersion (STEM DI) program involves a three-year commitment and requires a deep focus in either math, science, or computer science. This year, STEM DI awarded the three districts financial support with the goal of creating systemic change in math teaching and learning.
Different from traditional reform programs and interventions, STEM DI is a long-term commitment to each partner school. Instead of providing a one-size-fits all solution, disconnected from the district vision and local context, this approach creates change from the inside out. It is user-focused, problem-centered, and leverages the work that educators are already doing to build a culture of continuous improvement unique to each district.
The STEM DI districts were organized as a network focused on a common problem of practice: student engagement and achievement in middle school math.
The ISP team serves as the network hub, organizing and coordinating improvement efforts across the three districts. Leadership teams consist of central office administrators, building principals, and teacher leaders. Each team works with a dedicated ISP instructional specialist who begins the process by listening and asking in order to help define district aspirations. From there the teams develop concrete ways to achieve stepped goals.
This effort focuses on instructional strategies but is also designed to develop strong leadership support and put structures in place for scaling rigorous instruction. The ISP team bases its collaborative approach on the principles of improvement science championed by leaders of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
Wendy LaRose, ISP math instructional specialist, said participants have varying roles within a complex system and sessions are designed for them to work together on small tests of change that scale up for increasingly larger impact.
Abbey Loehr, ISP research director, who developed and designed the monthly professional development sessions at the heart of the STEM DI work explains, “Improvement science approaches professional development differently. It’s not about fixing things that are broken, it’s about refocusing and recentering on values, culture and beliefs. It’s creating systems change that starts by building a positive core.”
Wow, that really worked!
For Patrick Bellinger, changing classroom practices is all about having a good partner. The assistant principal of Mehlville’s Oakville Middle School said changing teacher practice is hard, and a good partner is integral to making that happen.
“Teachers can smell a management imposed strategy a mile away and in my 28 years, the best most transformative movements have been ground up, where the teachers inform each other. That is clearly outlined to me in this process and this partnership.”
While initially drawn to the STEM DI program by Washington University’s solid reputation, he was sold by its personalized plans, research-based strategies and ongoing, supportive commitment.
“I can trust that this process and the instructional strategies have been through the scientific discovery process,” Bellinger said. “The program was designed well to get us where we want to be and where we need to be.”
He also liked the fact that former teachers developed STEM DI’s math program, “It’s great to have people involved who’ve done the work.”
After a year of STEM DI work mindsets are shifting in the Ritenour School District according to Denean Steward, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction.
“People are thinking OK, I don’t have to front-load everything, maybe I can teach it a different way,” she said. “We are getting into beliefs that will change practices. Teachers are going back and sharing those beliefs with other teachers and that helps the work. Teachers are advocating. I am hearing teachers say, ‘Wow, that really worked!'”
Passionate about making math meaningful and exciting for students, Samuel Brotherton of Oakville Middle School is impressed with the STEM DI work, and the fact that the program is customized to the needs of each district.
“The staff is local. They are here in St. Louis. They know the demographics of the districts they’re working in. I think it’s important that they have a pulse on the region. They know how things work,” said the 6th-grade math teacher.
The Math314 people do a great job of listening and synthesizing all the things that we are saying. They do a lot of work diagnosing problems before jumping in and throwing out solutions that probably aren’t going to work.Samuel Brotherton
Mehlville special education coordinator Emily Kresyman appreciated having a skilled facilitator guide the teamwork and model what the process should look like. She joked that for Rachel Ruggirello, ISP associate director and district coach for Mehlville, it probably felt like herding cats, but Kresyman said Ruggirello’s guidance was key to advancing their district’s implementation. “She was great. We can get lost in the minutiae of things. She helped us move forward and not get stuck in that spiral of conversation.”
Part of improvement science is leveraging collaboration, learning from others and ultimately accelerating learning as a district. One positive consequence of the pandemic was the ease with which teams, already comfortable in a virtual environment, could collaborate across districts.
Mandy Harvell, Ritenour’s curriculum and instruction coach, valued being part of a larger community. “Being able to hear the struggles of other districts, and finding that often they were similar to ours, allowed us to learn from each other and collaborate with each other.”
When the pandemic put Math314’s plans on hold, it initially felt like a setback to ISP math instructional specialist Jeff Kennedy. But upon reflection, he believes it opened up a great opportunity for the math team to collaborate with districts.
“By partnering to unpack current systems in each district through STEM DI, we’re set up to make an even bigger impact next year when Math314 begins professional development with teachers.”
Ruggirello explained that for the next two years current STEM DI teams will continue to meet as a Networked Improvement Community (NIC) focused on accelerating learning by refining shared theory, developing systems and management structures, and continuing to learn through disciplined inquiry.
The ISP is excited to grow the STEM DI program into a region-wide effort to support STEM learning. This partnership approach to knowledge generation through a deep dive in one subject area empowers educators to use the principles of improvement science to solve other problems of practice. The end goal for partner schools and districts is measurable improvement and the capacity to apply this systems learning to future work.
The end goal for students in the three STEM DI districts is to be in classroom environments that encourage the joy of engagement in high-level math discourse, and provides them access to rigorous mathematical thinking through authentic real-world problems that allows them to explore multiple solution pathways and take intellectual risks. Through these experiences, students will form a deep conceptual understanding math that goes far beyond rote problem-solving.
Media Contact: Myra López