Jennie Hayle teaching math to her students while smiling

Math is in the spotlight. Reports of test scores, opinion articles pitting those who wonder if calculus is still important against those who find it essential, and headlines about essential skills for the jobs of the future are in the news.

In fact, a team of Spring Lake Park Schools teachers tackled some of the very same questions that have become more prevalent in the public domain in our K-12 math study completed during the 2017-18 school year. We thought this would be a good time to remind families of this work, what’s happened since then and our continued efforts in the area of mathematics.

A years-long process

Traditionally, math curriculum and teaching practice has had a strong focus on procedural learning – focusing on the steps students need to follow to solve a problem and get to a correct answer. Math skills needed for advanced math – and the emerging opportunities of the future – require those procedural skills and also deep conceptual understanding of mathematics.

“For the last few years, we’ve been working toward a new balance,” says Hope Rahn, director of learning and innovation. “The work is focused on the belief that each student can succeed in doing meaningful, high-quality mathematics learning and work, and also execute procedures with fluency and accuracy.”

In 2017, a team of elementary and secondary teachers and specialists conducted a study of mathematics practices within and outside of Spring Lake Park Schools. Led by Lisa Switzer and Amy Bjurlin, learning coordinators for the district, the team’s findings informed the evolution of Spring Lake Park Schools’ K-12 Math Framework.

The framework, like those for other content areas, includes research-based pedagogy—instructional practices, that have been proven through research to the have the most impact on student learning. The K-12 Mathematics Framework now includes seven practices – the how’s of teaching math – that serve as a guide for deepening learning and teaching in mathematics.

In the summer of 2018, teachers of math had focused learning in each of the framework elements. At the same time, the project team reviewed the core curricular resources at the primary and secondary levels against the practices described in the framework. That review resulted in a core curricular resource change for K-5 for the 2018-2019 school year. Core resources for 6-12 math remained the same.

Last year, our elementary levels focused on using their new core curricular resource and deepening work with students on conceptual understanding. At the secondary level, teachers focused their work on conceptual understanding and implementing rich tasks, two of the seven elements of the mathematics framework.

Top parent questions

As curriculum and teaching practices are evolving, you might be wondering:

  1. What’s different about math? The biggest difference is a more focused effort on conceptual understanding of mathematics not just the procedures/steps to solve problems accurately and quickly. The instructional strategies are designed to get at that deeper conceptual learning in ways that each student can access.
  2. Why are kids working more in groups? Collaborating with others is a tool to help students learn math. By discussing their thinking with others, students gain deeper conceptual knowledge and accelerate their learning. Working in a group, the conversation rises to the highest thinking in the group.
  3. Why isn’t there homework? Or, why does homework look different? At the elementary level, homework is designed to reinforce conceptual understanding and may look and sound differently than how adults/parents have experienced homework – for instance, a video of the student explaining their approach to solving a problem. At the secondary level, purposeful homework with flexible completion schedules, at the appropriate difficulty level for each student can help students deepen their learning or practice key skills and concepts. That said, the homework often does not look like what parents may remember from their school years.
  4. Why are there homework questions where there isn’t a right or wrong answer? There are often many ways to represent an answer. Having many ways to show an answer and being able to speak to how they arrived at the answer helps students remember and make connections to previously learned concepts, learn new concepts, deepen their understanding and support them in making sense of ideas in context. In these cases, the thinking to get to an answer speaks more to the student’s understanding.
  5. Why aren’t our students doing better on standardized math tests? We are tracking this closely and eager to see progress. We are also very early in our implementation of the refreshed mathematics framework. While we’d like to see results immediately, experience has shown us that it often takes a few years to see the impact of changes like these on test results.

What’s next

This school year, specifically during the second half of the year, teachers of mathematics in our district will continue their own learning by going deeper into some of the framework practices in focused professional learning opportunities.

“This is truly a journey. Each day, we are focused on deeper learning and implementation in our math journey to better prepare students for the opportunities and challenges of the future. Large scale changes don’t happen overnight but through intentional action,” says Hope. “We’re committed and want our families to come with us on this journey.”