(This article is primarily focused on educating parents about what to look for when it comes to high-quality math instruction. I’ll be following this up with another article about how to advocate when “things go wrong” in a future post.)


Congratulations to SFUSD’s math team!

Recently, our district was RECOGNIZED by major players in education (Education Trust West, and Ed Week!) for its work in raising standards for math education while reducing discrimination via tracking. This link comes from the Math Department website: http://www.sfusdmath.org/ (Check out the “Families + Community” page with lots of great links to support homework help and summer math learning!)
SFUSD is recognized for our leadership in reducing tracking, an exemplary instance of Best Practice #1: Creating a culture of high expectations for all students.”

Despite accolades, parents still have reservations about the district’s new Math Sequence

After sharing this positive news within my parent network, I was surprised to see that my actions had reignited some old concerns on PPS-SF email group about the new SFUSD Math Course Sequence and elimination of tracking/honors in our education system. Despite the praise of other education experts, parents continue to express a belief that that differentiation simply won’t work.
But then I took a step back and reread some of the comments. I think the big hurdle educators need to overcome with families (outside of a general distrust for district initiatives) is that they just don’t have a reference point for talking about some of the big shifts happening in education today–families have just never experienced it. Case in point: The following quote comes directly from a parent on the PPS-SF email group. It effectively illustrates one key shift in math instruction: the CCSS Math no longer stresses teaching math with a sole focus on computation at the expense of problem solving and critical thinking. Now computation and critical thinking are equally important:
And as a former “high-functioning math student” I learned my times tables and long division well. But I had to figure out for myself, over many years, all the tricks to doing math in my head. And it’s the latter that I find more useful, especially in our digital age where it’s faster to pick up a smartphone than it is a pen and paper to do long division. It also increased my understanding of why systems like long division work in the first place. I wish I had learned that stuff earlier.
It’s important to remember that many of us were educated in traditional classrooms that stressed the “talk and chalk”, “teach to the middle” “bell-curve” style of teacher driven-instruction. As parents, we are the most important advocates for our kids’ learning. Nonetheless, to advocate effectively we have to educate ourselves on new instructional strategies so we don’t push for methodologies that seem “comfortable” for us but are out-dated.
Do you remember, when we were kids? In my day, no one had personal computers or the Internet, let alone mobile phones or tablets. (I know I’m dating myself, but in my day a good calculator cost upwards of $50! Additionally, do you remember hearing about diversity or equity in schools? In my high school there was no mainstreaming or inclusion; students receiving special education services were relegated to “bungalows”, desks were lined up in rows, and English Language Learner students were tracked into “remedial” classes where they spent whole class periods filling out worksheets which asked students to do inane tasks like adding -ed to the end of verbs. (?!)

Changes are a-coming!

I’ve always thought it better to show not tell… so here are a few videos I’ve been able to round-up illustrating some of the big shifts going on in our classrooms today:

Differentiating math at the middle school level

This video shows teachers collaborating to plan lessons that teach math to students at multiple ability levels. As you can see from the video, there is both support for students who need it (more structure, group learning, etc.), but the tasks given to all students are at a high level. Notice that one teacher remarks that she normally would have designed the task for her higher-performing students and is surprised that this approach also brought about great results with her low performers. This is further proof that when you track by ability, any gains you might reap for higher-performing students, come at the expense of lower-performing ones–low performers routinely get stuck in classes that focus on basic skills by less-experienced teachers in classes with more high-needs students.

Student choice supports differentiation in language arts

This video highlights another good way to differentiate learning is through the use of using student-centered learning using “learning menus“. This video shows how a teacher builds lessons where students pick from “appetizers”, “entrees” and “desserts” at a variety of levels. Student choice increases motivation because it taps into student interest. Students are also more likely to choose tasks at the appropriate level: not too hard (frustrating) and not too easy (boring).

Teacher professional learning using “illustrative math” to model real-world problems

This videos shows how teachers are working together to foster shifts in math instruction to higher level thinking about real world problems. Teachers work collaboratively to co-create authentic math tasks and share student work to build units of study that challenge students to think deeply about mathematical concepts.

Teachers improve their practice via coaching and collaboration and technology 

Here is another example of how teachers can use video to co-create a lesson on fraction to teach math concepts. By watching each other teach, they are able to reflect on their teaching practice and make adjustments to their instruction. Providing teachers collaborative time with the support of a math coach is a really effective way to improve instruction and help teachers become ever better teachers.

Parents need to be “educated” to hold the district accountable

We must hold our schools accountable for providing high quality math instruction for ALL students, both high and low-performers (and all those in between!) This accountability must be systemic… not just for “squeaky wheel parents”.
 
With this in mind, I wondered if the district might create some type of parent workshops which model well-differentiated “classrooms” so parents could do middle-school and high-school level math and experience for themselves the educational paradigm shift in action. Even better, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could video-tape these parent workshops, or actual SFUSD classrooms to share them on the web?
At the very least, it would be helpful if the district could communicate to parents the skills and content of the various spirals in Math (and English) so parents could understand the depth of the work students are undertaking. It’s not just about rote memorization of math facts anymore!
Currently, information about the SFUSD Pre-K – 12 Core Curriculum is only available for educators. Families don’t need to know the minutiae of unit plans and it would be unreasonable to post assessments before students are assessed. Nonetheless, how can families hold teachers, site and district leaders accountable for high instructional outcomes, if they don’t know what students are expected to know and do? How can they demand differentiation for their children, if they are uninformed about the standard expectations for ALL SFUSD teachers at each grade level?

Let’s support, monitor, and advocate for strong math instruction in all SFUSD schools!

The district has recently increased its commitment to supporting teacher professional learning at all levels, with an enhanced focus at the middle school level. Specifically, this means reduced class sizes in all 8th grade classes next year (!) There will be no more than 24 students and many will be smaller. Additionally, coaches will be provided on-site for all middle schools with a total of nine coaches and one program administrator supporting middle school math.

Keep up to date on math-related activities by becoming a member of PPS-SF or visiting the Math Department website where you will find parent information guides to the new standards and helpful, activities you can do with your child, and other helpful resources.

No matter what parents do at home, the heavy lifting for this shift will be at the school and classroom level. As parents, we can be strong advocates for our teachers in getting the time, resources and support they need to be effective.

Important questions families can ask are:

  • What should my child “know and be able to do” as a result of this course, class, lesson, or project?
  • How do you know what my child knows and is able to do in math? How is learning being assessed? How are you adapting instruction to meet their specific learning needs?
  • How is the school supporting teachers in making instruction accessible and engaging for all students (differentiation)? Do they have adequate curricular resources, student information, coaching and collaboration time to support students working at the low and high ends of the spectrum?
  • How can parents help teachers and schools to be more effective? How can they help students at home master new standards?
It is good to ask questions because often teachers and site leaders are so hard at work they forget to share information with families about all they are doing and ways for families to help. In some cases though, you may face resistance from educators who do not wish to partner with families. In these cases, you may have to file a complaint (or at least threatening to file) with the district to get results. (I’ll write more about that one in an upcoming post… so stay tuned!)

Does any of this make sense to you? What do you think? What do families need to know in order to advocate for the best education for all kids?

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About alimcollins

Ali Collins is an educator, community organizer and mom. She lives with her husband and twin girls in San Francisco, CA.

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