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Lessons Learned from Chicago Secondary Mathematics Improvement Project

author: Margaret Small
published: 06/21/2000
posted to site: 06/21/2000

Some lessons learned in an urban LSC

Margaret Small, Co PI,
Chicago Secondary Mathematics Improvement Project

At a recent gathering of PI's and Evaluators from projects that were at various stages of implementation, I was asked to share a few ideas about lessons learned with respect to ensuring a supportive context for LSC projects and increasing the likelihood of Institutionalization after the end of the grant. Our project, the Chicago Secondary Mathematics Improvement Project (CSMIP) is in its final months of full-scale operation and so we have been thinking about life after the grant quite a bit. As I planned my comments, I realized that the basic philosophy of our project remains today what it has always been- that fundamental math reform only really occurs in math classrooms, one classroom at a time.

While all of the LSC projects are focused on systemic change, in Chicago we have never had the luxury of focusing our attention at the district wide level. Although the district signed on to support the project, shortly after we received our grant key retirements and reassignments left us with no real advocates or supporters at the district level. When we attempted to pursue contacts with the new people in charge of curriculum, our efforts were routinely ignored or deflected by those in the central office. At one point in the life of our LSC, the central district office even attempted to stop the program. They ordered both of the co-PI's of the grant to stop their focus on professional development for a wide-ranging group of Chicago math teachers and to resume jobs as classroom teachers. Prompt action by our Program Officer, principals at schools involved in our program, and our university partners stopped this attack. Because of the lack of involvement or support from the Urban Systemic Initiative or the central administration, our involvement with schools typically has begun from a grass roots level. Usually a few teachers have attended an awareness workshop based on their interest in reform in math education. This initial exposure to exemplary curricula has been followed by sustained involvement in workshop opportunities supporting the use of the Interactive Mathematics Program, the material we use as the core of our professional development activities.

This interest and involvement on the part of some practicing teachers in a particular building has been the foundation for our recruitment of the principal, other members of the math department and the larger school community. In the initial stages at each school we have encountered resistance ranging from grumbling to sabotage from some of the mathematics teachers in the department. The number of resistant teachers in a department we have worked with has ranged from a few of a department up to a majority of the teachers. Because of this, we have often tailored our professional development to the needs of each school in addition to the citywide workshops and networking meetings that we offer on a monthly basis.

The great variation in how schools and teachers have responded to our professional development is reflected in the following table that indicates the level of support of the math teachers, the mathematics department chairperson, and the principal. For each school I have indicated a + or - for the current status of institutionalization as well.

School Teachers Dept Chair Principal Status of program
(Degree of buy-in) Initially Change
A + + + - -
B + + + + +
C +/- - + - -
D +/- +/- + + +
E +/- - + - -
F + + + + +

When I displayed this chart, I suggested than in many of the reform curricula we emphasize the need to find patterns and underlying rules governing what might be described as functional relationships. I asked the participants if they thought they could find the pattern in this table. After some jesting, I suggested that although there might be particular aspects that are common in schools where the program was successfully institutionalized, we have certainly not yet found a rule that covers all cases.

A comparison of the first two schools illustrates this complexity.

School A began with a few teachers who were strongly supportive. The principal enthusiastically endorsed the initial implementation of IMP for a few sections of students as a pilot. Additional teachers became involved and student test data supported continued expansion of IMP. Students continued to have a choice of IMP or a more traditional textbook series. Eventually the entire department was involved in professional development supporting implementation. The original principal retired. The new principal requested that the department decide on one curriculum rather than continuing to offer a choice. After much discussion about the value of offering students choices, the department selected IMP as the preferred approach to secondary mathematics. The department chairperson strongly supported this decision. At this point it would appear that school A had weathered the storm and institutionalization of math reform using exemplary materials was established. In spite of this, the new principal ordered a new set of traditional texts different from the department recommendation and scheduled all incoming students in to the traditional algebra sequence. IMP was phased out of School A. All of the staff who remained at School A attempted to infuse the traditional approach with the lessons they had learned in the IMP based professional development.

School B began in a similar manner with two teachers attending workshops and visiting classes at School A. These teachers decided to start a similar pilot at their school. After a successful first year, additional teachers became involved. The principal was thrilled at the change in the math classes he visited and strongly supported the teachers' initiative. Following the second year, the principal decided that all students should have the IMP curriculum and mandated that all staff members become involved in the professional development preparing to teach IMP. Some teachers were resistant and foresaw problems in student achievement, but the principal was firm. Two teachers resisted using the IMP materials in their classes, but the remaining nine successfully engaged in teaching a reform curriculum. Teachers with weaker mathematical background struggled in many ways and often pushed for a return to traditional content and methods. Although the make up of the core of dedicated IMP teachers changed as some teachers moved to new schools, there was an increasingly committed group who saw the benefit of a problem centered, hands on approach to teaching and learning mathematics. When School B's principal retired, his successor voiced support for continuing the IMP program and made it clear that he expected all the teachers actually to follow the same curriculum. Again it would appear that the conditions had been achieved for institutionalization of a reform approach to math teaching and learning. Privately, the new principal indicated to the department chairperson that a decline in standardized test scores would require him to change the curriculum. The department chairperson was also new in his position. Instead of championing all of the positive changes in the school's math climate that participation in our professional development program had supported, the chairperson felt it necessary to agree with the principal. For the fourth consecutive year, however, standardized test scores improved. At School B IMP appears to have survived another year.

In School A teachers were empowered to try out a new approach and evaluate its effectiveness. After careful consideration, they made a recommendation that was set aside by the principal. While teacher empowerment had led to the development of a dynamic department, the ensuing frustration of being ignored led to many transfers and resignations. In School B, where there was more uneven teacher buy in, the principals' continuing support of the new curriculum encouraged teachers to sustain their efforts to improve their teaching. But the uncertainty brought about by the attitude and commitment of the new principal has created shaky ground in spite of four years of improving test scores.

One might be tempted to say from these cases that it is clear that the most important thing is that a principal be supportive. If you look in the chart, the one variable that seems constant is that if principal support remains constant, the program has a positive current status. While this is a crucial element for institutionalization, it is not an independent force. Principals are affected by their own view of mathematics and their philosophy of education as well as other forces such as standardized tests. The role of teachers is also an important variable. How strong is their commitment to the professional development necessary to sustain complex changes in their approach to teaching and learning mathematics? While principals can destroy a successful program, sustaining it depends on teacher buy in and continued commitment to professional development and collaboration. A critical element in this process is the department chair. Their development as a leader is essential to build the confidence to work with new teachers and principals to support an ongoing commitment to developing a collaborative teacher community. Their effect of their role as a source of daily leadership or as a constant challenge and questioning of the new directions cannot be underestimated.

Both of these examples also illustrate the problems associated with principals attempting to determine for a secondary faculty what curricula they should teach. In School A, the principal rejected the advice of the faculty and stopped a process that had brought about a heightened professionalism for faculty members. This action challenged the empowerment faculty had developed. In School B, the principal moved to mandate for all faculty curricular implementation based on the enthusiasm and success of a core of the teachers. While this was the goal of the LSC, it is necessary at the secondary level to address the issue of uneven levels of teacher support for change. Administrative mandates can support the process of teacher change. But they also contain the potential of mobilizing teachers to resist. LSC's need to work closely with principals to assist them in effectively leading the change to an exemplary mathematics program.

A description of the situation in the other four schools in the table would provide additional evidence that things are not always what they seem. The process of changing the approach to teaching and learning mathematics in urban classrooms is a complex situation with multiple variables. Each variable is in constant motion, responding to the climate of instability and high political pressure that characterizes the contemporary urban high school. The combination of these factors means that all programs, even successful ones, are always vulnerable to criticism, attack and potential elimination. The ongoing education and involvement of policy makers throughout the district is an important safe guard to minimize such vulnerability. Lack of support by our USI and the central administration has minimized our ability to solidify the significant changes our teachers have accomplished.

The struggle for systemic reform in practice is fundamentally a struggle for the hearts and minds of teachers. Successful institutionalization is based on creating new educational environments in every teacher's classroom. In this transitional stage almost all of the mathematics teaching staff we work with, including ourselves, have learned our own mathematics in a very traditional manner. We learned high school mathematics as pure abstraction. When only a small percentage of students in our own high school years were successful in mathematics, we accepted the social assumption that we were the "smart kids", the ones good at math. In order for those of us who learned successfully in the traditional way to make significant changes in our practice, we must first experience the reality that mathematics can be done and learned in different ways. Teacher empowerment both to participate in a new mathematics culture and to become motivated to create that experience for their students is the foundation on which any successful institutionalization of reform mathematics education will rest.

A second issue to consider is the role of standardized test data in determining whether math reform efforts are institutionalized. While improved student performance on such measures is necessary to blunt attacks on reform curriculum implementation, it is not a sufficient condition to provide ongoing support for reform. In both school A and B students working with IMP scored higher than those using traditional curricular materials did. This fact supported School B to implement IMP school wide, while the principal at School A ignored the data and made his own selection of curricular materials. A positive improvement in test data is important, but it doesn't change people's minds.

Another key lesson is the need to nurture successful high school programs as existence proofs to other high schools and principals. The fact is high school math teachers can change. Most of our schools formerly had math programs with high failure rates that left most students behind in their development of any understanding of the powerful mathematics contained in the secondary mathematics curriculum. These departments have been transformed into vibrant communities of students and teachers engaged in collaborating on challenging problems. One implication this lesson has had for us in our final year of the LSC has been to encourage teachers at schools where support from the department chairperson or principal is insufficient to institutionalize the reform math program to transfer to schools where support is strong.

The strength of a reform math program at any building may be temporary, as there is significant turn over in principals in urban schools. But the willingness to provide high quality, experienced math teachers for other schools that are seriously attempting to change the culture surrounding mathematics education is an important service LSC's should consider. Many of the teachers who have participated in our professional development program now consciously say that they would never go back to teaching the "old way". If they can't teach IMP or another of the reform curricula, they feel they would have to leave teaching. Bringing such teachers into a school and department that is committed to sustaining the reform curriculum implementation process will keep these teachers engaged in the building reform approach to math education and strengthen the program at such schools. The continuing existence and success of even a small number of schools using exemplary curricula are evidence of the value of mathematics education reform that will last long after a LSC has formally ended.