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Annual Report Overviews


Critical Mathematics and Science Synergy Annual Report Overview

published: 12/13/2000
posted to site: 12/13/2000

Critical MASS Annual Report Overview


Project Description

Critical Mathematics and Science Synergy (Critical MASS) is a project of the Hudson and Fitchburg Public Schools in collaboration with the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, the Education Development Center and TERC to implement a systemic change program for all K-5 elementary teachers and all 6-8 middle school teachers of mathematics and science. Critical MASS builds upon four successful years of standards-based mathematics or science implementation in each district. Its goals are to:

  • establish a consistent inquiry-based, problem-solving approach in mathematics and science built on strong pedagogical content knowledge,
  • develop meaningful instructional and conceptual synergy between mathematics and science;
  • develop a critical mass of teacher-leaders and teacher implementers to sustain an inquiry-based mode of instruction in each district,
  • develop a culture of reflection and collegial support, and
  • make efficient use of interdistrict and regional resources to enhance improvement.

Major project components designed to meet these goals include:

  • Implementation of a consistent inquiry- and standards-based mathematics and science curricula in all K-8 classroom.
  • in-class support from full-time mathematics and science specialists;
  • multi-year structured Pedagogical Content Knowledge Workshops during three full-day, school-time sessions per year for all teachers in order to develop pedagogical content knowledge;
  • Summer Synergy Institutes to develop meaningful connections between mathematics and science content and instructional practice;
  • a teacher-leadership development program;
  • a professional development program for administrators;
  • a centrally-organized system for ensuring that instructional materials are in teachers' hands in a ready-to-use condition.

The professional development and support program is designed to engage all teachers in deepening their own content knowledge, while engaging in reflective discourse about teaching, student thinking and conceptual development, and assessment, and to develop deep understanding of the interconnections between mathematics and science.

Project Activities Spring-November 2000

Administrative Leadership:

After an intense round of spring planning, Critical MASS began with a Summer Leadership Institute for administrators, including all school-based administrators, curriculum directors, superintendents, assistant superintendents, and project staff. This institute, a collaborative effort of Critical MASS staff and the Education Development Center, had four goals: developing a common understanding of what inquiry-based mathematics and science looks like in the classroom; developing tools for supportive classroom observation; developing strategies for a supportive school culture; and developing strategies for gaining parent support for mathematics and science reforms. The institute opened with collaborative activities designed to build a reflective community among administrators and establish a common purpose for improving mathematics and science instruction. Based on activities adapted from the Lenses on Learning project administrators engaged in exemplar investigations drawn from standards-based mathematics and science curricula and in discussion of video case studies. Principals practiced observations using a rubric adapted from Lenses on Learning and Horizon’s LCS Classroom Observation Protocols. Discussion centered on the nature of science and mathematics inquiry and on inquiry-based pedagogy. In addition, using the Concerns-based Adoption Model, principals discussed strategies to support teachers at various points in their development. Extensive use was made of role playing in order to explore and refine strategies for supporting teachers, conducting observations, and working with parents. Each principal began work on preliminary action plans that included, Keeping the Vision Alive, Meeting the Diverse Needs of Teachers, Creating and Sustaining a Supportive Culture, and Addressing Systemic Concerns. Support materials made available to administrators included observation rubrics and research articles related to inquiry, the nature of science and mathematics learning, teacher and school change, and strategies for administrative support. The Administrators Leadership Institute provided a strong catalyst to initiate the project based on a common understanding of and commitment to the goals of the project.

Teacher Professional Development:

Professional development for Critical MASS began formally this fall. It is important to note however that it built upon considerable prior training on specific mathematics and science units/modules. Although Hudson and Fitchburg teachers represent a range of familiarity with inquiry- and standards-based mathematics and science education, the primary emphasis of our professional development sessions is on taking the "next step". Our work thus far in the Critical MASS project has been conducted primarily through two venues:

1) Pedagogical Content Knowledge workshops: These sessions are three, full school day, grade-level, release-time sessions. In each of the five years of the project, there is a primary content focus in mathematics and science at each grade level. In year one, for example, the mathematics sessions deal with geometric and spatial reasoning. All teachers participated in the first round of these sessions this fall. The structure of these sessions typically incorporates the following sequence: engagement in an adult learning experiences to deepen and clarify teachers’ content understanding; identification of student learning goals and possible misconceptions/ preconceptions; using video, student work, or case study materials to generate discussion about how children grapple with the content; and discussion of instructional implications. Workshops were led by University faculty with both content expertise and extensive experience with standards-based curricula or by TERC curriculum developers/trainers. These sessions introduced teachers to a new paradigm for content-centered professional development and reflection, while beginning to build a collaborative discussion community.

2) In-class support from full time professional development staff is a linchpin of our support network. Professional development staff takes on a number of roles. These roles are the product of negotiation between teachers and the professional developer so that we best meet the needs of individual teachers. One role is to collaborate with teachers as a coach/observer in mathematics and science classrooms, noting aspects of instruction, documenting student engagement and discussion, and following up with supportive discussion with teachers. Another role is to model instructional strategies. In other cases, collaborative grade level discussions have been held to share common concerns. Finally, after-school district-based grade level discussions have been held to follow-up Pedagogical Content Knowledge sessions. For example, in Hudson two consecutive sessions with 4th and 5th grade teachers used geometry assessment tasks to examine cross grade expectations and response to the range students understanding.

The most significant aspect of the matrix of professional development thus far has been its consistency and systemic nature. All teachers are included. Principals have made a Herculean effort to secure substitutes for release time sessions, no small task given the strength of the local economy. These efforts have made a clear statement to teachers about the significance of improving mathematics and science instruction.



Critical MASS has taken on a significant challenge. While many districts have made strong progress in implementing exemplary mathematics and science modules, far fewer have attempted to move an entire system —all teachers, to a "next" stage of inquiry grounded in deepening teachers’ own content knowledge and understanding of student thinking. In addition, many of the models for such professional development grew out of experiences with a more self-selected group of teachers. Further, only a limited number of teachers have prior experience with the kind of digging into content and student ideas that Critical MASS represents. Far more are familiar with module training or the "make-it, take-it" workshops that preceded the introduction of NSF funded curricula. Finally, the dynamics of sessions change significantly when it is a "command" rather than voluntary audience. The design of Critical MASS was predicated on two assumptions: First, if we want to improve learning for all students, we needed to conduct professional development for all teachers. This meant conducting workshops during school time. Second, professional development had to be varied to meet the needs of all teachers. Third, we no longer had the luxury of waiting for an early group of volunteers to help the rest "across the chasm" over a ten-year period. Both equity and state assessment demanded a speeded-up process.

These challenges have been evident in our work thus far. Many teachers have been stimulated by the content of our Pedagogical Content Knowledge sessions. Their engagement in learning and reflection has been a model and catalyst for others. In fact, the level of engagement in adult content learning experiences has been extraordinary. However, some teachers view the work we have done through a "what can I do with this in my classroom tomorrow" prism. Broadening this perception will be a continuing challenge. Another interesting observation has been the wide disparity in teachers’ ability to articulate their observations of levels of student understanding. To some extent we have been limited by the paucity of video that focuses specifically on student thinking across our matrix of content topics. As we gather more of their own student work, we believe this will provide better stimulus for these discussions.

We continue to believe that the structure and content of the Pedagogical Content Knowledge sessions in combination with in-class support have been a strong start for teachers.

One development, not envisioned in the Critical MASS proposal that may provide a significant support for our efforts is our teachers’ engagement in and enthusiasm for the Responsive Classroom program. This pro-social program, developed by the Northeast Foundation for Children, has been adopted by many K-8 Hudson and Fitchburg teachers. It provides teachers will powerful strategies to create and support a trusting positive classroom culture. This is especially important in the context of encouraging students to express their "tentative thinking". Plans are underway to craft a pioneering "Management for the Inquiry-based Classroom" summer institute.

In 1998 with support from a grant from CESAME at Northeastern University, Fitchburg began a pilot of the FACETS curricula. It was chosen because of its potential to provide a comprehensive approach to middle school science that built upon student interest and STS connections. After piloting the materials for a number of years, Fitchburg teachers and curriculum coordinators have decided to end the pilot. A judgement was made that the materials did not satisfy the content or pedagogical standards we envision. A new matrix is being developed that includes recently released FOSS and STC middle school units, SEPUP, Event-Based Science, Project Aries, and Models in Physical Science modules, many of which are already being implemented in Hudson. Teachers and curriculum coordinators are meeting this winter to select modules to pilot. Selection criteria from NSF and NSRC will be used to guide the process. Following pilots and selection this spring, professional development will be provided over the summer to implement new units in the fall.

The search process to hire new staff developers began in the spring of 2000. As a result of that process, a mathematics staff developer was hired in Hudson and a science staff developer in Fitchburg. However, we have been unable to date to find a qualified mathematics staff developer in Fitchburg as envisioned and budgeted for in the Critical MASS proposal. District curriculum coordinators continue to provide in-class support and additional professional development is being provided to a group of lead teachers by Karen Economopoulos, of TERC. Although we are continuing to search, it appears unlikely that at this point in the school year we will be able to find a full-time staff developer. Therefore, effort will be made to hire a consultant to provide in-class support on a per diem basis. We will reinstitute a vigorous search for a full time position in the winter.

Both school systems continue to enjoy a high level of support at the superintendent and school board level. This and the positive outcome of the Summer Administrative Leadership Institute have been extremely important. At the same time, two developments on the State level have the potential to pose challenges. First, Massachusetts has adopted a new mathematics framework that, in the opinion of many mathematics educators, is a step away from NCTM standards. A similar development is on the horizon for science. In addition, a ballot initiative was just passed that provide for a state rate roll back. While both districts remain resolute in their commitment to the exemplary curricula we have chosen and to inquiry as the primary mode of teaching and learning, we are cognizant of the possible reverberations that may occur.