Teachers in the 42 states that have adopted the Common Core State Standards in Mathematics (CCSS-M) are trying to change how they teach. For most, the strategies and methods required are new, as is the depth of knowledge demanded, in both students and teachers. Many teachers are finding that studying standards-based curriculum can be a basis for their own professional development. But this is only possible when curriculum-makers write materials that are worthy of study.
The expectations of the CCSS are slowly ushering out the day of the scripted curriculum. Content-rich materials that are educative and respectful of teachers as students themselves are replacing scripts. With a much wider reach than any previous reform effort to fix math instruction in this country, Common Core State Standards in Mathematics are changing the K-12 instructional landscape. They emphasize conceptual thinking, deeper learning, and the real-world application of math concepts while also expecting kids to be able to compute well and recall math facts quickly. They aren’t reliant solely on procedures and memorization of formulas, which people tend to forget over time. Instead, they seek to teach the meaning behind math concepts, problems and algorithms. They also encourage students to solve problems in more than one way to promote flexible thinking and ensure students have multiple strategies that work for them.
But a persistent question has been how to help teachers successfully deliver this kind of instruction, since most were trained before the Common Core and didn’t learn math this way as kids. Thus, as a new generation of children is being asked to learn math the way leading researchers, the higher education community, and employers say is needed, too many teachers don’t have the knowledge or the confidence to make that happen — particularly in the lower grades where teachers tend to be generalists.
In our experience over the past few years with the K-12 math curriculum we developed, working directly with teachers and math experts, there are clear steps that districts can take to support and empower teachers.
Embedding professional learning opportunities into any new standards-based curriculum is vital. That may not be typically how educators, administrators, and the textbook industry have thought about the role of curricula, which too often have left the teacher out of the education equation. Too many curricula consist of series of scripts alongside student handouts. That outdated and ineffective approach not just risks missing out on an opportunity to help teachers improve their math knowledge and their teaching skills — it is deeply disrespectful of teachers who are striving to become masters of their craft.
In countries such as China, Singapore, Japan, and Finland — where students often outperform U.S. children on international math assessments — it is standard practice for teachers to study teaching materials intensely before planning and delivering any lesson. Publishers write the materials with an understanding that teachers and students both will be studying them. The teachers and mathematicians who wrote our free, online curriculum, Eureka Math, took this same approach.
First, we sought to establish a framework that helps guide classroom teachers. At the beginning of every grade level the curriculum includes a section called “Preparing to Teach a Module,” which outlines a process for understanding the instructional sequences of that section — essentially the “plot” of the math “story” being told. Typically, each grade is broken up into five learning modules, and teachers are encouraged to study the table of contents and overview of each section, to understand the concept development that’s expected, to consider the learning goals and to complete the built-in assessments.
Within the curriculum, we also outline a process to help teachers create their own daily lessons. We first ask them to think about how a particular lesson fits into the overall module and how it relates to key concepts being developed. We include suggested problem sets, student tasks and sample student-teacher dialogue to help simulate and guide teachers to use all this information in their classrooms. By studying curricular materials before preparing a lesson, teachers engage in the best form of professional development available to them. Professional Development (PD) need not be a one-time event, delivered over several hours with a catered lunch. PD is most effective when it is a part of teachers’ everyday lives. By relating the PD directly to the students in their classrooms, progress is centered on the instructional materials teachers and students will actually use.
A successful curriculum should also allow for collaborative study with colleagues. When teachers have a good curriculum that works, they need to study it methodically, but they need not always do it alone. Working with colleagues in professional learning communities can enhance this process. Spending dedicated time with one another discussing lessons, objectives, and working through problems accelerates and deepens teachers’ math knowledge. Teachers can use the curriculum as a guide to creating their own lessons and then give them to colleagues for review and shared use. Classroom teachers should feel comfortable and confident with what they are teaching, and peer feedback can strengthen their skills and identify places where they may need support.
Eureka Math teachers in Vermilion Parish, Louisiana work in grade-level teams to read through the overview of every module in the curriculum. They then discuss the learning objectives and dive into a conversation about the math required before starting to teach a lesson. Principals follow up by working closely with teachers to see if they need classroom support from strong math teachers and coaches. Everyone feels supported, and kids are learning. Vermilion students recently showed strong growth on state math assessments.
We’re also seeing professional learning communities expand beyond individual districts. For example, teachers in Vermilion Parish worked closely with those in nearby Iberia Parish, which also saw strong student achievement gains in math. And teachers in several Washington State, Ohio, and New York districts are also working collaboratively to study the curriculum and plan around it.
Kathy Quick-Gunther, director of curriculum and professional development in Bethel School District, Spanaway, Washington, put it this way: “A teacher can advance his or her math knowledge, as well as improve instructional strategies, by reading and studying the curriculum and doing the problem sets and assessments.” She said her district has made more professional learning time available for teachers to prepare to teach math this way, and she said that has been beneficial to teachers and children. Bethel teachers have actively engaged in district and school sponsored professional development.
In a less formally organized but entirely 21st century way, individual teachers may also choose to join an online community of teacher-learners who want to improve their math practice by engaging with each other and our curriculum writers around a shared instructional tool. We see curriculum as something that can help teachers better understand the math and teaching sequences at hand, a curriculum that is instructive for students and educative for teachers, too. Providing this kind of rich, job-embedded support to teachers hasn’t traditionally been the role of curriculum developers and the textbook industry, but it should be.
Whether they’re new to the Common Core standards or not, teachers need support to plan great lessons and teach math effectively. And what better way to offer it than through the instructional materials teachers use every day? Continuous learning is important for all professionals, even the strongest teachers. So any curriculum provided to them should offer a deeper understanding of what they are teaching and why, so they can offer the best possible instruction to their students.