At the Partnership for Los Angeles Schools, my team and I have the opportunity to work with 19 schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). The students in our schools come from communities that are about 89% Latinx, 9% African American, and 24% English language learners. We collaborate with educators to develop a vision for learning and offer tools to make that vision a reality.
A large component of our focus involves supporting schools to select high-quality materials, but we know it’s only one step in a larger process if we want to make a real difference for student learning and engagement. We also provide a multitude of wrap-around supports that focus on how to engage stakeholders, best practices for materials implementation and messaging, as well as the importance of professional learning and coaching.
Over the past decade, we have learned a lot about what makes a quality adoption process. Our initial focus in selecting materials was all about standards alignment, access to grade-level content, and supports for teachers to make the instructional shifts. Those are still priorities, but after several rounds of selection, we know that materials must do more than meet the standards in order for schools to ensure equity.
For change to be lasting and long-term, an understanding of communities and ensuring supports for all students have to be core aspects of the materials adoption. The schools we work with recognize this, too. By listening to the needs of teachers and students, educators expand their definition of quality instructional materials to incorporate curricula that offer a problem-solving base, focus on conceptual understanding, and offer language supports so that students can build skills in articulating and writing about their ideas.
A Vision of Equitable Learning for All
Before we began reviewing new curricula, one of our guiding questions was: ‘Why are we adopting new instructional materials?’ Our answer was that we believed high-quality instructional materials play a vital role in improving student achievement and teacher practice. Most importantly, quality materials create equitable experiences across all classrooms.
One of the most challenging things to see in a school are big differences between, and even within, classrooms in terms of what students are learning and the experience they’re having. We’ve been in schools where some sixth graders in a building aren’t accessing the same grade-level work as their peers in the classroom right next door.
Unfortunately, this is a reality in schools across the country, and the lack of access to grade-level content is a root cause. To disrupt this pattern in our schools, we developed an instructional vision to guide our materials adoption process with three key components:
1) Amplify the genius and assets of all students.
2) Make math a problem-solving journey rather than a binary sorting mechanism between ‘math people’ and ‘non-math’ people.
3) Guide all students to discover the beauty, power, and joy of mathematics.
Once we had established our high-level goals of providing an equitable experience for all students with a foundation of quality instructional materials, we narrowed our focus to the specific local needs and challenges of students and teachers around mathematics learning.
Rooting an Adoption in the Local Needs of Our Students
The key to selecting quality materials is to first design an instructional vision to root processes in the local needs of teachers and students, such as the importance of language routines and built in lesson plans. As we moved forward with our most recent adoption, we narrowed in on four qualities that were crucial to us in the materials we ultimately chose.
1. Materials that Cultivate Problem Solving and Build Critical Thinking Skills
An important question that we considered during our visioning process was: ‘Why do students learn mathematics?’ One reason is that it helps them understand and critique the world around them. We want our students to be empowered to understand the strengths and challenges of their communities and equipped with the tools and confidence to make changes. Critical thinking and problem-solving skills developed using rigorous mathematics curricula can play a big role in building students’ confidence and leadership abilities.
Through several previous adoptions, we learned that access to grade-level content was not sufficient. Students thrived when programs were designed to ensure that they were the ones doing the mathematics problem-solving. We made the decision to only consider problem-based math curricula—programs that encouraged students to grapple with problems independently and in groups before the teachers helped synthesize the learning.
2. Materials That Offer Specific Language Supports for All Students
Before students can deeply engage, they have to be able to understand math concepts and articulate their ideas. Throughout our adoption processes, we learned more about the kinds of language supports students need in order to speak and write critically about mathematics ideas.
We looked for curricula that had materials with built-in mathematics language routines that would give all students an entry point into mathematics. These supports were especially crucial for our English language learners and simultaneously benefited all students.
While the routines were one key component, we realized our students learning English needed additional scaffolds and approaches to access the mathematical concepts. We prioritized supports that would help all our students engage with the content, engage with each other, and produce a product tied to the curriculum. Through this process, we learned not all language supports are the same. Now, we are doing more research and looking for very specific supports based on the needs of our students and their teachers.
3. Materials that Support Intentional Instructional Shifts Toward Deeper Mathematics Learning
After California adopted new math standards, one of the major instructional shifts we had to learn and adapt to was the shift from a procedural fluency model of mathematics to a more balanced approach that also includes conceptual understanding and application.
Many of our teachers learned to teach math using the procedural approach and understandably needed support to make these new adjustments. One critical component we honed in on was the importance of materials offering lesson plans that supported shifts in instruction so that students are the ones doing the thinking, talking, and mathematics in math classrooms. These have become non-negotiable in our selection process over time.
4. Materials that Support Aligned Professional Learning for Teachers
Providing training and support for teachers around the new materials and about the new instructional approach is crucial. Without the combination of high-quality instructional materials and aligned professional learning and coaching, we could not truly shift what was happening in classrooms.
For teachers, teaching in a different way than how they learned math can be difficult, not only because of the content but also the changes in pedagogical practice. But when quality curriculum is provided as a foundation alongside support in how to use those materials, teachers can engage in deeper learning that ultimately serves their students.
More Work to Do
We’ve come a long way, but we still have work to do to reach our vision for mathematics learning, specifically to shift how students think about mathematics to include themselves as participants in the problem-solving.
If we are serious about positioning all students as knowers and doers of mathematics, we have to provide an environment for this level of deep engagement that involves allowing students to share authority with teachers. Materials that support teachers to ask students what topics, problems, and contexts are important to them—then bringing those topics into the classroom—creates buy-in that can sustain and enhance learning and motivation.
Above all, we have learned that understanding your local context and establishing local priorities based on a strong vision are integral to adopting materials that will help create equitable learning spaces and communities. Materials can be a huge lever for equity. The best curriculum provides access to grade-level work that feels relevant and empowering every day. Through quality content and great instruction that challenges them and speaks to their needs, our students can harness the true power of mathematics.