Setting Goals for a New School Year

  • Setting Goals for a New School Year

    Setting Goals for a New School Year

    By Matt Larson, NCTM President
    August 16, 2017

    One of the many great things about education is that every year brings a new opportunity. Unlike in most other professions, our professional year has a clear start and finish that brings with it both an opportunity to reflect on and learn from the year that just ended, as well as a chance to "wipe the slate clean" and reinvent ourselves as necessary. We have an annual chance to implement new learning, create a more effective classroom environment, and build new and more effective relationships with both students and colleagues.

    However, in order to continually grow professionally and avoid the trap of having "multiple first years of experience," we have to be intentional about leveraging this annual opportunity by setting goals and holding ourselves accountable to them. Here are three suggestions for your consideration as you set your personal and collaborative team goals for the new school year.

    Make a Commitment to Collaborate with Your Colleagues

    It is common today for schools and districts to say they have professional learning communities (PLCs) in place. Collaboration is critical because in too many schools teachers remain isolated. One danger of isolation is that it can lead to inconsistencies in instructional practice that can contribute to inequities in students' experience of mathematics in the classroom, their opportunities to learn, and ultimately their learning outcomes.

    The Professionalism Principle in Principles to Actions includes an emphasis on teachers collaborating on instruction. But as is often the case, how something is done is as important as what is done. Too often, professional learning communities are little more than cooperative groups of adults where time is spent discussing trivial administrative issues or dividing up routine tasks to reduce workload. To truly improve instruction and student learning, professional learning communities must focus on collaboratively planning instruction and on leveraging common formative assessments as a way to respond to student learning in real time and support each and every student in meeting learning targets.

    I challenge you to make it a goal this year—either at your grade level or with teachers in your building who teach the same subject—to collaborate once each unit to comprehensively and deeply design one lesson (or a small series of lessons on a concept). Deeply discuss, compare, and debate your ideas, insights, and practices to more effectively teach a particular concept. And then reflect together on how well the lesson went and revise it for the following year. In the midst of the day-to-day demands on our time, it is too easy to neglect reflection, revision, and iterative improvement. Collaboratively reflecting and revising instruction within your collaborative team is a very effective strategy to ensure continual improvement and professional growth.

    Make a Commitment to Address Issues of Access, Equity, and Empowerment

    Readers of this message know that NCTM has renewed its commitment to access and equity and has expanded its consideration of equity issues to include student empowerment—encompassing the critical constructs of mathematics identity, agency, and teaching mathematics for social justice.

    Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that "mathematics education too often reinforces, rather than moderates, inequalities in education." Effective mathematics education not only moderates inequalities but also seeks to remove the structural obstacles that stand in the way of achieving equitable outcomes. So I challenge you and your collaborative team to make your own commitment (or recommitment) this year to access, equity, and empowerment. You can do this by taking the following actions:

    • If your school or district "tracks" students or has "low" instructional groups, eliminate these tracks and groups. Provide each and every student the opportunity to learn grade-level or above mathematics, and provide the instructional support necessary for each and every student to successfully attain this goal.

    • Ensure that each and every student has access to curriculum and instruction that is balanced with respect to conceptual understanding, procedural fluency, problem solving, and the development of a productive disposition.

    • Affirm students' mathematical identities. View students as individuals with strengths, not deficits. Value multiple contributions and student participation. Recognize and build upon students' realities.

    • Provide students multiple opportunities to grow mathematically and demonstrate their knowledge.

    • Provide additional targeted instructional time as necessary based on the results of common formative assessments—make instructional time variable, not student learning.

    • Provide students with learning opportunities that help them see and experience mathematics as a tool they can use to better understand their world and to improve it.

    • Review your department's teaching assignments. Are the most experienced teachers teaching all the upper-level courses? Highly effective teachers have the skills to support students who may not have previously been successful in mathematics.

    Learn and Try Something New, But Maintain Focus

    Every year we should push ourselves to learn something new and implement it in our classroom. Maybe your new thing will be a specific research-informed instructional strategy from Principles to Actions. Maybe your new thing will be to create a more effective classroom environment where all students are comfortable participating, view mistakes as an opportunity to learn, and are valued as learners. Maybe your new thing will be to engage as a collaborative team in the study of one of NCTM's new grade band series: Taking Action: Implementing Effective Mathematics Teaching Practices or Access and Equity: Promoting High-Quality Mathematics. Maybe your new thing will be to record one of your lessons and then reflect on it with a trusted colleague. Maybe your new thing will be to make use of technology in a meaningful way or change the way you handle homework or assessment. Maybe your new thing will be to integrate social justice tasks in each unit this year.

    But don't try to change too much at once. Steve Leinwand once famously stated that it is unprofessional for a teacher of mathematics not to try to change around 10 percent of his or her practice every year, but that it is unreasonable to expect (or to be asked) to change much more than 10 percent in a year.

    So find your 10 percent this year, focus on it like a laser, and do your best not to become distracted by the tsunami of things that come at us daily as teachers. Simply start with one thing, learn about it, collaborate around it, implement it with support from your colleagues, and then reflect on and revise it until it becomes second nature. Only then move on to something else. Seek deep and successful implementation of a few things versus superficial implementation of many.

    As we work through the process of implementing our "something new," we will likely make mistakes and occasionally experience failure. Making mistakes, getting feedback from our colleagues, and making iterative improvement are part of the natural process of continual growth. We should never forget that perseverance isn't just for students—perseverance also applies to us as professionals.

    In the spirit of public accountability, here are some of my goals for the coming year:

    • Continue to work with the NCTM staff and the Board to ensure that access, equity, and empowerment are embedded in NCTM's culture and reflected in everything NCTM does.

    • Work closely with Robert Berry and the NCTM Board to ensure a smooth transition and to position NCTM well for the future.

    • Listen more and talk less to better understand multiple perspectives.

    I encourage you to work with members of your collaborative team to set personal and team goals for your professional growth this year. If you do, you will likely enjoy this year more than the last, and more importantly, the students with whom you work will ultimately be the beneficiaries of your continual growth and focus on instruction.

    Leave Comment

    Please Log In to Comment

    All Comments

    Albert Cuoco - 8/17/2017 2:59:40 PM

    ``Learn and Try Something New, But Maintain Focus'' is  a central mantra for our profession.  

    In addition to the issues of practice that Matt posted, the same message applies to learning and trying new mathematics.  The CMBS report  ``The mathematical Education of Teachers II'' differs from the first report by including professional learning \emph{after} one has begun teaching.  It acknowledges that one can't possibly learn in 4 years of college all the mathematics one will use in the profession, and it makes some concrete recommendations for \emph{content-based} professional development, driven by practitioners  in collaboration with mathematics professionals.  A wonderful example of such collaboration is the workshop series at Math for America:

    And here are just some examples of mathematics that I learned on the job and that have become staples in our work with teachers:

    (*)   The use of ideas from abstract algebra (and complex numbers) to make up problems for your students that ``come out nice.''

    (*)  The structural connections between ideas in linear algebra (distance and inner product) to corresponding ideas in probability and statistics (variance and covariance).

    (*)  The analytic geometry perspective on the classical ``power of a point'' theorems in geometry:  In the Cartesian plane, the power of (a,b) with respect to the graph of x^2+y^2-1=0 is a^2+b^2-1.

    (*)  The use of conic sections to analyze and gain insight into the mathematics of regression lines.

    (*)  The use of formal algebra to keep track of counting strategies and to generate probability distributions.

    These and  many more examples are often missing in courses for teachers, before and after graduation.  But teachers have picked up the slack by demanding and creating experiences in this brand of applied mathematics.  In addition to MfA, we have

    (*)  The Park City Mathematics Institute   (

    (*)  PROMYS for Teachers (

    (*)  The Delving Deeper department  of MT (that has published a treasure chest of this kind of mathematics).

    In addition to a profession of practice, we are a \emph{mathematical} profession, and like all such professions, there are profession-specific applications of our discipline that are as deep, beautiful, and useful as the applications that one finds across the discipline.

    Janie Merendino - 8/16/2017 3:32:14 PM

    I  so agree with the need for goal setting and teachers working through true PLCS. I have advocated for this ever since I became a math coach becasue I have seen great increases in student achievement as a result of teachers working collaboratively and using common assessments and tasks. teachers were surprised how much it lessened their work oad and how many benefits they reaped.  I do face  a challenge with my response to " tracking students" .  How do I respond to my teachers using Guided MAth groups  ?  This format is absolutely grouping students for 60-70% of their math time. Now granted the groups are fluid and flexible. Do you see a problem with this?  The kids are together for a very short time then they break out into math workshop - or group time for around 10-15 minutes then they come back together or work independantly.  What say you about this format for math with elementary students?  

    Matthew Larson - 8/17/2017 9:08:18 AM

    Thanks for your comments Janie. From my personal experience (not an official position of NCTM) "guided math groups" sometimes reflect a misapplication of reading strategies to mathematics education. I believe that guided math groups can be effective IF they are implemented in ways that provide additional instructional time to support students in targeted areas and do not take students out of grade-level based instruction. If the guided math groups replace grade level instructional time then they can devolve into an instructional strategy that does not support high expectations for each and every student.

    Janie Merendino - 8/17/2017 2:54:52 PM

    Thanks for quick reply and yo voiced my same concern. I may suggest the groups on a 2 day a week schedule and to be very flexible with lots of use of formative assessments.   I have had success in my district overcoming math timed tests so now Im on to this!  lol