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For Math Teachers by Math Teachers

Archive for October, 2013

Mathematics Coaching: An Essential Component on a Job-Embedded Professional Development Structure

October 31st, 2013 by Alice Fisher

RUSMP instructor, Blanca Medina recently wrote the following essay on Mathematics Coaching:

In many districts across the United States, schools use mathematics coaches as an important element in a comprehensive plan to improve instruction and learning in mathematics. But coaches don’t work in isolation. They are part of the education system and they play a crucial role in the design of an effective job-embedded professional development structure.

Job-embedded professional development occurs at schools and is tailored to teacher’s professional needs. It is designed to enhance teacher’s instruction with the purpose of improving student achievement, and allows schools to create a collaborative work environment that provides the level of support necessary to improve the teaching of mathematics in the classroom. These are some of the components:

  • Professional Learning Communities (PLC’s): grade-level meetings, where teachers collaborate with each other to implement best practices, discuss student performance and work, create data-driven lessons, help each other prepare and share materials, and assist each other in areas of difficulty.
  • Coaching: done by a person with high level of expertise in mathematics and in education in general who is not a classroom teacher, an administrator or an evaluator. A coach can help teachers align curriculum, instructional materials and assessments, create data-driven and differentiated instruction; collaborate with other teacher in their grade level, provide and model a variety of teaching strategies specific for a teacher’s needs, recognize and correct misconceptions, inform teachers of all matters of education: school and district policy, instructional strategies, curriculum and special populations.
  •  Mentoring: differs from coaching in its focus. A mentor is an experienced teacher providing support to a new teacher in the personal and non-academic features of teaching like district and school rules and procedures.

Within the job-embedded professional development structure, the role of a mathematical coach is an important one. They engage in direct contact with teachers to analyze their strengths, weaknesses and possible misconceptions with the purpose of improving math instruction and student learning.

Through classroom observations, demonstrations of strategies, modeling lessons, co-teaching, and engaging teachers in math conversations and powerful questioning that make teachers think, math coaches change teachers’ attitude. Teachers are guided to reflect on their own practice and encouraged to modify it when student data indicate learning is not happening.

The coach will select or design curriculum-based activities to demonstrate to teachers. These activities will address areas of need and will allow teachers to grow professionally. They should represent what research indicate are best practices. Once a new skill or strategy is learned, it’s time for teachers to implement it in their classroom. This implementation should generate some physical form of student response that the teacher can bring to the following meeting for discussion.

The discussion generated by teacher’s feedback on the implementation of new skill or strategy should be guided by DuFour’s four questions: 1. What do we want our students to learn? 2. How will we know they learned it? 3. How will we respond when a student experiences difficulty? 4. How will we respond when a student already knows it?

Mathematics coaches can have a direct impact on teacher’s quality, which will accomplish the final goal of improving student achievement.



“Job-Embedded Professional Development: What Is It? Who Is Responsible? And How To Get It Done Well?” National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality. April 2010. 14 October 2013. http://www.learningforward.org/docs/pdf/jobembeddedpdbrief.pdf?sfvrsn=0

“Mathematics Specialist and Mathematics Coaches: What Does Research Say?” Research, News and Advocacy. National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. 17 March 2009. 14 October 2013. http://www.nctm.org/news/content.aspx?id=22839

Shaub, Linda. “Instructional Coaches: Leaders of Instruction and Agents of Change”. Texas Educational Agency. 2 January 2010. 20 October 2013.  http://ipsi.utexas.edu/alg_readiness_tool/kit/instructional_coaching_v2.pdf


What Houston Can Learn from Schools in Finland

October 11th, 2013 by Alice Fisher

Recently Susan Troutman, RUSMP Associate Director for Secondary Programs, attended the Houston A+ Challenge talk given by Finnish educator, Dr. Pasi Sahlberg.  She immensely enjoyed listening to him speak, and so shared the following with us:

View slides from Sahlberg’s presentation
Listen to an interview with Sahlberg by KUHF radio’s Laura Isensee
Read a synposis of the event

Why are educators and policy-makers around the globe so interested in the Finnish way?

The Finnish education system has dominated international rankings for a decade.  In addition, according to the most recent survey by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the differences between weakest and strongest students are the smallest in the world. “Equality is the most important word in Finnish education.” said Olli Luukkainen, president of Finland’s powerful teachers union.  Ninety-three percent of Finns graduate from academic or vocational high schools, 17.5 percentage points higher than the United States, and 66 percent go on to higher education, the highest rate in the European Union. Yet Finland spends about 30 percent less per student than the United States. (From http://www.smithsonianmag.com/people-places/Why-Are-Finlands-Schools-Successful.html?c=y&page=1)

Dr. Sahlberg shared with the audience in Houston that the Finnish way of education focuses on collaboration instead of competition, personalization instead of standardization, trust-based responsibility instead of test-based accountability, and equity instead of school choice.

Read more at his blog.  I was especially intrigued by his post, “What if Finland’s great teachers taught in U.S. schools?”  Although the entry is long, it is worthwhile to read in entirety.

He claims that the following three beliefs of the impact of teacher effectiveness that seem to prevail in many under-performing nations are fallacies and explains why:

  • “The quality of an education system cannot exceed the quality of its teachers.”
  • “The most important single factor in improving quality of education is teachers.” 
  • “If any children had three or four great teachers in a row, they would soar academically, regardless of their racial or economic background, while those who have a sequence of weak teachers will fall further and further behind”.

Then he suggests lessons from high-performing school systems, including Finland, and urges us to reconsider how we think about teaching as a profession and what is the role of the school in our society.  Below are excerpts from his post:

“First, standardization should focus more on teacher education and less on teaching and learning in schools. Singapore, Canada and Finland all set high standards for their teacher-preparation programs in academic universities.”

“Second, the toxic use of accountability for schools should be abandoned. Current practices in many countries that judge the quality of teachers by counting their students’ measured achievement only is in many ways inaccurate and unfair. It is inaccurate because most schools’ goals are broader than good performance in a few academic subjects. It is unfair because most of the variation of student achievement in standardized tests can be explained by out-of-school factors. Most teachers understand that what students learn in school is because the whole school has made an effort, not just some individual teachers. In the education systems that are high in international rankings, teachers feel that they are empowered by their leaders and their fellow teachers. In Finland, half of surveyed teachers responded that they would consider leaving their job if their performance would be determined by their student’s standardized test results.”

“Third, other school policies must be changed before teaching becomes attractive to more young talents. In many countries where teachers fight for their rights, their main demand is not more money but better working conditions in schools. Again, experiences from those countries that do well in international rankings suggest that teachers should have autonomy in planning their work, freedom to run their lessons the way that leads to best results, and authority to influence the assessment of the outcomes of their work. Schools should also be trusted in these key areas of the teaching profession.”

Read his entire post here.