By Jennifer Lin Russell, Jennifer Zoltners Sherer, and Jennifer Iriti

Partners for Network Improvement, Learning Research Development Center, University of Pittsburgh

Getting students to think deeper about the content takes intentional choices and instructional moves on the part of teachers and administrators. One of our partners, Butler Area School District in western Pennsylvania, has worked this year to increase the academic rigor in their mathematics classrooms.

The district has worked in several arenas in order to focus the work. Teachers and administrators have worked on curriculum mapping in all areas so that content and standards are linked. Through a partnership, the Institute for Learning (IFL) has provided professional development. The PD focused on the use of high-level tasks in math classes, teacher questioning to press on deeper student thinking, and how to engage students in Accountable Talk® practices. As a result of the PD, the district is working to include tasks of high cognitive demand in the curriculum map for every grade level. Data is being collected as an indicator of the effectiveness of the curriculum maps.

Victoria Bill, math fellow with the IFL, has been working with Butler Area School District. She reflects on the impact of the PD in the district: “Teachers recognized that their students were not getting enough opportunities to think and reason deeply about mathematics. Teachers worked together to identify the high-level tasks or to modify tasks to increase the demand of tasks. All the teachers in the districts used the high-level tasks identified, thus giving students opportunities to problem solve and to reason about mathematics.”  

Hopp and Robb also share that there are still areas of need. “One of our biggest struggles is having a large number of teachers across six buildings. This means that there are six different administrators who are supporting this work. Logistics, communication, and coordination are a big challenge. Our strategy for consistency has been to select high-level tasks that are integrated into the curriculum map. Every teacher at the grade level will complete the high-level tasks. Our hope is that this provides accountability for implementation.”

That said, the district is already seeing the impact of their work both in the classroom and on high-stakes assessments. Hopp and Robb stated that the pedagogy studied in the IFL PD sessions “provides a basis for making our classrooms more student-centered. The use of Accountable Talk practices has increased the communication between students and enhanced their ability to discuss mathematical concepts.” In addition, they share that there have been increases in assessment scores: “We have seen significant increases in our PVAAS (Pennsylvania Value-Added Assessment System) growth scores. We have also seen increases in most of our buildings in the number of students scoring advanced on the PSSAs (Pennsylvania System of School Assessment). We feel there is a direct connection between our work with IFL and these increases.”