Victoria Bill

IFL Mathematics fellow

When a district successfully shifts their trajectory of students’ performance, many people ask how they did it. New Brunswick Public Schools’ use of strategic decision-making, grounded in improvement science principles, and greater collaboration across role groups resulted in impressive gains in mathematics scores across the district.

In what ways did the district support teaching and learning that lead to this growth in student learning?

Central office leadership in collaboration with instructional leaders across the district systematically provided classroom teachers with a full range of support—from resources to learning opportunities—that focused on the Effective Teaching Practices for Mathematics.

How did the district determine if the new learning about the effective teaching practices made its way into classrooms across the district?

New Brunswick administrators collected and used a variety of data to formatively assess the impact of the implementation of effective teaching practices. Building administrators collected and analyzed data and artifacts from third through fifth grade classrooms to find out what type of instruction was happening in mathematics classrooms. This included the instructional tasks being used and samples of student work from instructional tasks. They also collected and analyzed survey data from teachers and students along with state math assessment data.

Analysis of the data showed several correlations between the district’s support for effective teaching practices and the impact on teaching and learning in mathematics classrooms. State assessment data revealed high scores in the math domain of fractions, the area of study where teachers delved most deeply during their professional development. Teacher survey data indicated that teachers were using high-level tasks regularly in the classroom.

The analysis also provided insights into areas that needed further attention:

  • Student work samples contained little evidence to indicate that students were making use of mathematical models.
  • Student work samples showed few students providing evidence of mathematical reasoning.
  • Student survey data revealed that the majority of the talk in the classroom was teacher talk which contrasted with what teachers themselves reported.

These insights served as the focus for the district’s next series of changes. Dr. Aubrey Johnson, superintendent, challenged principals to try small tests of change to spark an inquiry into ways to deepen and improve the learning opportunities for the students.

See below for examples of tests of change.

Early in the implementation of these change cycles, principals reported that they felt focused and re-energized by the rapid and actionable steps within and across tests of change which have also provided a window into the ways their schools are working.

Additionally, student work that was collected and analyzed showed improvement in student performance, which served to bolster the efforts of principals and teachers alike.

The principals reflected on their work and named three common practices:

  • Stay focused on mathematics content and student reasoning.
  • Take an inquiry stance and cultivate inquiry.
  • Engage in authentic collaboration.

Why did the common practices named by the administrators matter?

Taking an inquiry stance when positioning the test of change was one of the ways principals engaged teachers in the work. Principals created space to work alongside teachers so that they could take on issues and problems of practice collaboratively. Together, they brainstormed ways they might engage in small tests of change and identified the evidence they would collect to learn about the change. Since this practice was new to everyone, working jointly allowed them to establish clarity about why the evidence was needed, the types of evidence that would be helpful to analyze, and processes for collecting evidence that would be least disruptive to teaching and learning.

As data were collected and analyzed, principals took great care to cultivate dispositions in which everyone avoided leaping to definitive conclusions. Teachers and administrators had to learn to be tenacious, to probe their own and others’ ideas and interpretations, to doubt, and to be skeptical. Working in this way is a learned process and requires a great deal of discipline on behalf of both the principals and the teachers.

Throughout this process, principals and teachers focused on very important practices in mathematics—the use of models and explanations and writing about mathematical reasoning. These effective teaching practices are ones that will support students in deepening their understanding of mathematics. When analyzing student work through these lenses, teachers and administrators can gain a deeper understanding of what students know and what they need to learn.

Additional insights will also be shared by New Brunswick principals at the IFL Leader Summit in June.