Making Change: Part 1

I’ve been doing some thinking about the last post, regarding the need for change.  I was (intentionally) vague in stating how we need to change, although I had planned to address that issue later.  What I realize now is that this is way more than one post; here is part one of [who knows how many?].

Sometimes the systems in which we work are broken and need fixing.  One of these systems that deserves our attention is the options and support available to students who are below grade level in mathematics, particularly at the secondary level.  The reality is that all teachers should know more about the Response to Intervention (RtI) model besides the fact that such a model exists.

How do we provide for these students?  We must begin by understanding their individual needs.  Diagnostic assessment data provides one perspective and can help identify potential students .  Another important factor is teacher input; this provides a critical perspective about students who would or would not benefit from some type of intervention.  The system within a school or district needs to support the transition process and provide the opportunity for teachers – those who know the students at the individual level – to provide input into the intervention placement process.

Once we are aware of individual student needs, we need to approach the numbers of students – however daunting or discouraging – with a positive attitude.  Schools and districts need to find ways to accommodate the needs of these students.  The key to this system is increased time and intensity – “remediation” in the traditional sense will not work, because we are obligated to help students who are below grade level get on a trajectory that will get them to grade level proficiency (hopefully before they leave our buildings). 

The task, then, is to find a way to increase the time that these students are spending in mathematics – often through “double-dose” courses – with resources that are not changing and sometimes decreasing.  In most cases, this process involves a significant change in the way that schools and school districts do business.  However, this change to the existing system is necessary to facilitate further changes that will benefit the students whom we serve.

(Next time: Changing the way we think about instruction and instructional resources for students below grade level.)

The Way We Do Business

I’ve been thinking lately about math in high school.  This is not unusual, by any means, especially for someone in my position.  Nationally, we are struggling with math in high school; some schools, districts, and even states are getting it right, but most are struggling.

A word if caution: if you’re looking for solutions in this post, you will be disappointed.

One thing that frustrates me most about the work we (as a nation) have to do at the high school level is the lack of concern about instructional practices.  Most high school math teachers have a solid grounding in the mathematics that they teach.  This is often incorrectly equated to a solid understanding of how to teach that content.  Unfortunately, content knowledge does not imply pedagogical knowledge.  (I would pose the question: is the converse true?  My jury of one is still out on this, although I thought I knew the answer until about 30 seconds ago.)

So how do we change instruction?  I’m not even going to attempt to answer that today.  What I know for certain is that if we want the change to happen in the future, we have to start now.  That sounds pretty obvious, but here’s why:

  1. Current high school students who are thinking about becoming math teachers are learning how to teach even now.  They watch their teachers.  If all of that student’s teachers are teaching they way that they were taught, then that student is going to someday teach the same way.  The cycle continues because…
  2. Secondary teacher preparation programs at the university level do not do enough to promote a change in instructional practice.  Those that do are often ineffective in reforming students’ attitudes and beliefs about pedagogy that were learned in high school. The result is…
  3. More teachers, teaching the same way they were taught, and influencing the next generation of teachers.

You’re probably thinking that I’m the world’s biggest pessimist right now.  I really believe that we can change.  I also believe that we will not wholly change the way that high school math is taught in the future unless we start the change now.  In summary,

  • Systems matter – they need fixing sometimes.
  • Resources matter – they need to be of a high quality and aligned to appropriate benchmarks.
  • Instruction matters – it’s the critical third element that we too often overlook.

Changing the way we do business in high school means taking a close look at all three areas.  Until we do, we aren’t going to have the overall effect that our nation so desperately needs.