By NCTM President Linda M. Gojak
NCTM Summing Up, July 3, 2012
As states move toward implementation of mathematics standards—whether the Common Core State Standards or their own—all stakeholders must be involved and knowledgeable to ensure that our students become mathematically proficient. Disjointed efforts to implement standards and improve mathematics teaching and learning will not be effective. Teachers, administrators, parents, and policy makers must work together to improve school mathematics programs.
Our efforts to successfully implement standards in mathematics make it critical for all who are involved to realize that mathematics instruction is unique. It does not fit the template for reading or literacy instruction. Too often, decisions are made with the idea of attempting to make change while maintaining current practices. Although effective instruction has similar characteristics across subject areas, a universal template for instruction in different curricular areas does not ensure effective instruction. Trying to fit different areas to one template is like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole—and then we wonder why our efforts to improve instruction are not successful!
At the classroom level, all teachers of mathematics, pre-K–12+, must have a deep knowledge of the mathematics content that they are teaching. Additionally, they must consider developmentally appropriate pedagogy when planning mathematics instruction. We know that "showing and telling" students how to do a procedure, followed by a series of exercises in which students mimic that procedure without understanding, is not effective—and certainly not motivating. To become mathematically proficient, students must have opportunities to develop conceptual understanding. Teachers need access to rich tasks that are directly linked to both content and practice standards. They need good models of formative assessment and to know how to use that information to meet the needs of each student. They need to make the best use of every precious minute of their mathematics instruction time and to have time in their school day to work with colleagues to talk together, learn together, and plan together.
These kinds of requirements don’t end in the classroom. School principals must be knowledgeable about effective pedagogy for teaching mathematics, have an understanding of the content at each grade level, and provide support for faculty through ongoing high-quality professional development. When evaluating mathematics instruction, they should know what to look for in the mathematics classroom. This includes determining whether the mathematics content is accurate and appropriate and how it fits into the district curriculum. Are students actively involved in learning mathematics by talking about and working to make sense of the mathematics content? Knowing all these things is especially important for elementary and middle school principals, who may be the primary instructional leaders in their schools. The role of the elementary mathematics specialist certainly supports principals in this important work.
In many districts, curriculum coordinators are no longer subject area specialists. They are responsible for leading district-level decisions on all subjects. Although this arrangement is fiscally prudent, it makes district leadership accountable for knowing what mathematics standards mean for student learning. Decisions related to effective implementation of the standards must be made with accurate information and with input from those who know what this entails. This is where I caution "buyer beware," as there are many models being offered that do not embrace the vision of NCTM: to ensure that all students have access to the highest quality of mathematics instruction. It is the responsibility of district leadership to know the characteristics of good mathematics instruction and to set high expectations for everyone in the district to meet those expectations. Information is available through NCTM as well as state and local mathematics organizations. Mathematics educators from local colleges and universities can be another good resource for help. It is important to get accurate information and to do your homework, since these important decisions are made at the district level.
We cannot forget the importance of parents in this equation. It is imperative to keep parents informed about changes in mathematics instruction. The mathematics that their children are doing most likely looks very different from the work that they did in mathematics and ways that they learned math. Providing explicit examples of how they can help their children succeed in mathematics will support the work of teachers in the classroom. Parents need to know how important knowing mathematics is to their child’s future career choices. The process of communicating this begins as early as preschool and the primary grades, where the foundation is laid for all future mathematics learning.
Is this collaborative approach a reality for you? If not, let’s think about how can we work together to make it happen!