Victoria Bill

IFL Mathematics fellow

Allison Escher

IFL English language arts fellow

Humans are problem solvers by nature, and educators are no exception. Whether we are working to improve student comprehension, or striving to improve low math scores, once a problem has surfaced, we often rush to find solutions – to our detriment. Trying to fix a problem before we know its true cause is a problem in and of itself. Instead, we must take time and investigate from all angles. Our goal must be to understand the potential root cause of the problem, and doing so requires collaboration from all stakeholders, as each individual can only see a small portion of the accumulation of contributing factors.

This elephant depicted by the Carnegie Foundation shows the view we get when looking at something large and complex. The individual often has a skewed or narrow view because we see only a portion of the “elephant.” Up close we think we are looking at a rope, a snake, or even a wall. We need to step back to get a more holistic view of the elephant in order to understand what we are seeing. The same is true when we consider a problem of practice in a school system.

We suggest working collaboratively. Once a problem of practice is identified, focus collective efforts on gathering data from a variety of role groups and sources (e.g., state assessments, student/teacher surveys, coach observation) in order to gain a broad perspective of the work. This analysis of data helps to “pop” trending issues and identify the root of the problem and where to focus the effort first.

Gathering and analyzing various sources of data will provide stakeholders with different perspectives. To illustrate, we’d like to share one example of a problem of practice that we have been tackling in Syracuse City Schools. This district has been working on the following problem of practice: How do we improve low student performance in middle school mathematics? We began this collaborative work by considering what data we needed to offer us various perspectives of the problem. We considered these questions:

  • Whose voices do you want in the room? Teachers’ voices? Students’ voices? Administrators’ voices?
  • What survey questions will you ask of each of these role groups in order to gain insights into the problem?
  • What research has been done in the area of the problem of practice?
  • What can be learned from the state assessment data? Can something be gained by disaggregating the data and looking at the data of special populations?
  • What expectations related to math instruction does the central office communicate to teachers?

We began by having teachers and administrators work in groups of four, each examining one of the data sources. Teachers reviewed the data and made observations, writing one observation per stickie note. Participants took turns sharing and posting observations. As similar ideas were shared from different sources, participants recognized the greater validity of this data when the same observation was shared across data sources. Once all of the observations were shared, we gave each category of data a descriptive name and the strength of the observations were quantified. The charts below show two of the group’s insights about data analyzed.

Some of the categories assigned to the observations that were grouped together include:

  • Lack of classroom culture
  • Instruction not consistent with the district expectations/the Effective Teaching Practices (NCTM).
  • Students are not engaging in classroom discourse.
  • Opportunities to solve high level tasks do not exist.
  • Students in the grade level have a lot of unfinished learning. 

The teachers and administrators recognized that observations identified from the data were contributing to students’ low performance in mathematics.

They also recognized that some of the causes were out of their control, such as absenteeism. Teachers are now working to identify small test of changes that they will try out in classrooms with hope of improving middle school mathematics. With the use of a continuous improvement process, though, educators will be able to systematically measure progress toward this goal.