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Achieving Results Standards in Action #1 Building Mathematics Instructional Skills

Image of teachers working togetherA large, rural district in southern Maine is suffering from rapid staff turnover - and the implications for staff development are profound. Of the 112 new professional staff hired in the past three years, 45 have had less than three years' classroom experience; and even among the district's current math staff, few have had any formal preparation in teaching the discipline.

The question of teachers' readiness to teach math became acute in 1997, when the district began piloting a new, constructivist (investigative) math curriculum for kindergarten through grade 7. As the new program took hold, an evaluator from the University of Maine found math work was intensive, yet it seemed choppy and fragmented across the grades.

A surge of disappointing student achievement data added urgency to the evaluator's report. Two district elementary schools were cited as "Needs Improvement for Adequate Yearly Progress" in math. Analysis of Maine Educational Assessment (MEA) and Terra Nova results in math showed students performing better on some Learning Results standards than on others. On the most recent MEA, district eighth graders performed below the State average in several key areas.

Their suspicions confirmed, principals and teachers began organizing staff development around three, closely related goals: improving math instruction, easing curricular transitions from one grade to the next, and - last but certainly not least - anchoring the new math curriculum securely to the requirements of Maine's Learning Results [Organizational Alignment, Use of Research Data].

Members of the district's staff development committee knew that the ultimate goal - improving students' learning - hinged on strengthening teachers' instructional skills which depended on developing a range of educational opportunities that would respect the principles of adult education as well as professionals' varied learning styles [Focus on Results].

As a first step, the superintendent convened a group of K-8 teachers to develop a math curriculum guide. The guide called for tiered instruction, with each module carefully aligned with the Learning Results. Teachers from the group continued to lead the district's math effort, not only participating in training but also helping to train others [Participation].

However, many teachers needed more intensive, hands-on help in meeting student-performance goals. Tapping experts at a nearby college, administrators conceived a two-week summer teachers' academy during which college educators worked closely with the district's least experienced teachers. The focus: boost student learning by enhancing teachers' instructional skills.

Finally, as a third layer of support, the school board created a full-time position for a K-8 mentor-teacher. This professional - a qualified classroom veteran - works with fledgling educators in their classrooms for two-week blocks, modeling math lessons and incorporating instructional strategies learned at the academy. The mentor also co-chairs, with another teacher and two principals, the district's K-12 math committee.

The mentor also plays an important part in identifying teachers' professional development needs, thereby contributing to a cycle of assessment, training, and positive change [Continuous Improvement]. For example, after the summer academy, the mentor's firsthand observations revealed wide variation in teachers' readiness to teach the new math curriculum. Responses on a follow-up questionnaire, given to all participating teachers, as well as one-on-one interviews confirmed the mentor teacher's observations.

Using this rich evaluation data, staff developers are working now on plans in which an additional mentor, teacher-leaders, and math instructional specialists will help educators throughout the district advance to toward goals.