Blog Series

Site-Based Math Professional Development: Where to Begin?

by John Woodward on May 24, 2017

  • Assessment
  • Math
  • NCTM Standards
  • Professional Development
  • State Standards

Editor's Note: This is part 2 of a 3-part series on Math PD

Rita Bean’s and Diane DeFord’s1 article about instructional coaching offers a highly sensible list of dos and don’ts for working with teachers in their classrooms. Crafted from what is clearly a great depth of experience, Bean and DeFord apprise the reader immediately of the highly political nature of coaching. For example, if coaches communicate explicitly or implicitly that they are there to “fix them and their classrooms,” then the chances of a successful working relationship plummet dramatically.

On a more positive note, Bean and DeFord stress the proactive dispositions of a successful coach or PD specialist: Active listening, flexibility, and building trust at every step in the change process. After all, teachers’ needs vary, and while some may want to see a demonstration lesson, others may prefer simple feedback about a lesson plan or supplemental instructional materials that support a standard. An overarching theme in this article is coaches need to adopt a problem-solving perspective, one where everyone is invested in a joint solution even though what teachers want from a coach can differ greatly. 

Two questions that occurred to me after reading their article were, “Is there a more efficient way to begin PD or coaching, one where the teachers’ needs are more common than they are divergent?” Also, “Can this be done in a way that is nonthreatening, at least in comparison to in-class coaching with feedback?” 

Three Phases of Math PD

As the senior developer of NUMBERS, a professional development program in math for grades K- 8, I have thought a lot about these issues. As for common needs, it is clear all teachers (and administrators) are concerned about ensuring their instruction addresses state or national standards. And, this isn’t just once in a while. It’s on a sustained basis. As for everyday practices, all teachers engage in some kind of instructional planning to close the gap between their standards and their classroom instruction. Are there strategies to help all teachers in a building learn that involve instructional planning? Before answering this question, it’s important to describe the overall structure of NUMBERS professional development.

Phase One of NUMBERS is a two-day inservice on one of five different domains (Number Sense, Fractions and Decimals, Measurement and Geometry, Ratios and Proportions, Algebraic Thinking). During the two days of any one of the inservices, teachers learn about the big ideas in the domain and what high-level instructional tasks look like—tasks they can transfer to their classroom and help their students achieve a better understanding of a topic, whether it is place value or algebraic expressions. With this knowledge and set of tools in hand, we move to Phase Two.   

The purpose of NUMBERS Phase Two is to build local capacity and follow up at the building level. We draw heavily on the insights from Grant Wiggins’ and Jay McTighe’s2 Understanding by Design. Specifically, we help teachers see how what they have learned in the two-day workshop aligns with today’s math standards and creates the foundation for instructional planning. For example, where would you incorporate double number lines or tape diagrams into your ratios and proportions lessons to help students with number sense and problem solving? Scheduling the time and duration of tools like double numbers or tape diagrams is a critical first step, one that follows directly from a focused two-day workshop that gives teachers concrete examples of these tools and their purposes.

Another important part of Phase Two is helping teachers create simple performance assessments that change the “target” of classroom instruction. End-of-unit performance assessments that emphasize problem solving and communication send a clear message to students: You need to know more about math than only the ability to compute numbers. Applications to real world contexts are critical, and you need to be able to explain your thinking to others. Teachers are well aware of the importance of all of this because they permeate state and national standards.

Teachers welcome these kinds of assessments, because they can see how they help students prepare for high-stakes assessments. That’s one of the biggest challenges that weighs upon teachers’ minds today. I have found staff also appreciate that NUMBERS PD provides sample rubrics and research-based scoring methods that are time efficient. Generally, a teacher can score 30 performance assessments in 15 minutes or less. Finally, our earlier work3 with teachers indicates that with only a modest level of support, teachers can introduce, administer, score, and discuss these assessments with students in a way that makes a statistically significant difference in problem solving and communication in time. Our most important finding has been that by introducing performance assessments, we build the foundation for new kinds of instructional practices, ones that lend themselves to coaching.

A final element of NUMBERS Phase Two is to develop local talent. The practices mentioned above can certainly be taken over by math or PD specialists in a district. Where possible, we also want to assist these specialists in delivering Phase One inservices to teachers in the district. All of this reflects the fact we are mindful of cost of educational change when it is driven solely by outsiders as well as the well-documented fact that change is much more likely to be sustained when it is taken on by teachers, administrators, and PD specialists in the building or district.

Phase Three of NUMBERS is where many of Bean’s and DeFord’s insights make the most sense. Helping PD specialists become more effective change agents—particularly as classroom coaches—is often a site-specific issue. Needs vary, and change can be uneven—classroom to classroom and building to building. NUMBERS trainers are available to consult in person or at a distance on particular challenges or issues at the classroom, building, or district level.

In the end, I feel NUMBERS provides a structure that begins in a nonthreatening manner and moves toward local levels of control that lead to more penetrating and prolonged change.

Learn more about NUMBERS, a mathematics professional development that is actionable and immediately applicable to classroom practice.

Learn More

Bean, R., & DeFord, D. (2012). Do’s and don’ts for literacy coaches: Advice from the field.  Washington, DC: ERIC. Retrieved May 8, 2017 from https://eric.ed.gov/?q=do%27s+and+don%27t+for+literacy+coaches&id=ED530365 .

2Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design.  Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

3Woodward, J., Monroe, K., Baxter, J. (2001). Enhancing student achievement on performance assessments in mathematics.  Learning Disabilities Quarterly, 24(1), 33-46.

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