Math Teaching, #6 of 6

Randall is curriculum director of Match Education's small graduate school of education.  It is named in honor of a schoolteacher, Charlie Sposato. 

This Ed School is unusual in several ways.  One is that tuition is low, because it's subsidized by "employers" -- top charter schools willing to pay a premium to hire recent graduates of the program, a finder's fee of several thousand dollars per candidate. 

That, in turn, means Randall and the Ed School team are often on the phone with school leaders.  By understanding what top charters want, Randall can make sure the teacher residents are better prepared to succeed there. 

In terms of our math teaching discussions, Randall says (some edits for clarity):

We prep rookie teachers for both "I We You" and "You Y'all We." 

Why both? 

Institutionally, as a teacher prep program, we operate at two levels.  What is "our belief" of good practice for rookie teachers -- i.e., what should you do if left on your own?  And what is likely to be expected from you when you're hired from the schools that aggressively recruit for our grads?  That is, it doesn't do much good for our Ed School to say "Do This" if, in August of your rookie year, the principal and department head are going to say "Do That."  This is precisely the type of frustrating experience that so many USA rookie teachers -- my Ed School says one thing and the teachers in my department say another. 

To the first question, our take on good practice is: the structure of a math lesson should be driven by the task you want kids to be able to do.  We genuinely believe both types of math classes are valuable.  I'll explain that below. 

To the second question, we've seen a massive sea change towards "You, Y'all, We" (always called something different by each school) in just the last year or so -- among the top charters.  So our "customers" are changing rapidly.  Mostly this is caused by Common Core tests, like PARCC, being harder.  Our sense is that many typical charters, by contrast, are still doing the same thing, and not particularly changing their approach to teaching. 

So I asked Randall what the changes are in terms of Math Methods:

It's a work in progress, but I think the shorthand for us will be:

a. When you need to push fluency:  I/We/You as default.  Watch me use this algorithm; now you do it.

b. When you need to push application: hybrid.  Watch me solve this problem.  Think aloud.  Turn and talk about how I did it.  Now I'll do another.  Again, what did I do?  What was the same between both problems?  Now your turn.

c. When you need to push conceptual understanding: inductive/investigation/discussion.  The "you, y'all, we" model in your blog that Brooke and Rox Prep teachers/leaders are using at their schools and training our teachers in (but with different terminology).  Abby Waldman, Assistant Principal at Brooke, and Ryan Kelly, Principal at Rox Prep Mission Hill taught classes for us about this last year in this method.

I think it's important to note that, as I understand it, neither school is going to this model fully--just as a way of teaching conceptual understanding before kids practice fluency and application in more traditional ways.   Community Charter School of Cambridge is doing similar work and, UP, I believe, is as well.  My guess is that other Boston charters are, too, to some degree or another.

To your other question, is this "investigation" method (our preferred language as the field settles on a consistent term) harder for rookies?  No doubt.  100 times yes. 

But if the target task involves a kid flexibly demonstrating conceptual knowledge of what was really going on in a problem, then I don't think teachers can get kids there with just I/We/You.  For us, it's both, with the additional, more immediate reason that teaching conceptually is going to be an expectation for most of our teachers.

Even this fall, we're amending our Math Teaching coursework, taking the lead from schools like Brooke, Roxbury Prep, and Cambridge Community Charter by teaching math goals as fluency, conceptual understanding, and application, and then breaking down what each looks like.

And that's kind of the somewhat hidden story here, to me.  It's not just that math teachers are teaching differently.  As an ed reform field it seems like we're placing much more explicit value on kids having conceptual understanding of math--that we're expecting them to know and do more in math classes than we used to.  Especially in middle school.  Again, I think that's somewhat driven by CCSS/PARCC, and somewhat driven by thinking it's the right move for college and high school readiness.   

Let me translate Randall's last point.  

In my mind, this change in teaching is part of the adage "What gets measured gets done."  Two changes to measurement are resulting in a more ambitious approach to math teaching in No Excuses charters. 

First, KIPP led the way on measuring something important that most schools choose not to measure: how many alums complete a 4-year degree in college.  (Not how many enter).  Result: not high enough.  Result of that: rethinking many things, including how to increase academic rigor. 

Second, the Common Core appeared.  Not just the list of standards, but the tests (NY Regents, PARCC, etc) appeared -- and they are harder than the old tests.  Kids who were "proficient" in math on the "old tests" won't be on the new tests.  So you got to step up your game.  I've already blogged about the positive effect here on English teaching in No Excuses charters. It seems the same is happening with math. 

Did others call for more rigor in No Excuses charters before?  Sure, see here for example; particularly in her last chapter. 

But what gets measured gets done.  In particular, the new higher bar becomes a "positive wedge."  School leaders can push a sometimes fatigued faculty....because they must if kids are going to hit the higher bar. 

Now, remember, this blog series is talking about a tiny sliver of schools.  There are 6,000+ charters, and perhaps 400 are No Excuses charters or turnarounds, so collectively they educate maybe 1/3 of one percent of US kids.  The evidence is that in most high-poverty schools, kids had been doing badly on the easy "old tests."  Moreover, typically teachers have much lower math knowledge than the teachers in No Excuses charters -- there's only so many Eddie types who are applied math majors from Harvard.  So what happens in those schools if you make the tests harder? 

Not improved math teaching.  Just lower scores.  After that, an effort to either jettison the new tests, or to make the new tests easier. 

But in this handful of charters, I think Common Core is working more or less as intended, and kids will be pushed on their math thinking.