Tag Archives: Math Coach

How Deep for Teachers?


26570883 - flood level depth marker post with rain falling into the surrounding waterRecently, I conducted a training with a school district in West Virginia.  It was for new teachers (1st-3rd Year) in all subjects K-12. There were approximately 75 participants and 20 mentors. One of our activities dealt with Depth of Knowledge. I showed the typical D.O.K., but I wanted them to have a more meaningful experience with D.O.K. levels in mathematics.

DOK Chart

The activity I created was inspired by the work of Robert Kaplinsky. I love his Tools to Distinguishing Between Depth of Knowledge Levels. I particularly like his example of sums of whole numbers:DOK RK sampleThis is a simple and clear example of the D.O.K. progression. However, it does not show D.O.K. Level 4, so I contacted Robert and he directed me to this Problem Post of his, How Many Soda Combos are There on a Coke Freestyle Machine? 

DOK Soda

Perfect! I compiled these four into one document, scrambling the order, and asked the teachers to discuss the problems in their table groups and to assign a D.O.K. level exclusively to each one. I was intrigued at how different their responses were compared to what Robert (and myself) considered the problems to be. I noted that the group was a broad range of grade levels and subject areas, so I thought I would conduct the same activity with a collection of high school math teachers that I was scheduled to train in California  the following week. I was very curious if math teachers would view the problems differently than non-math teachers. Indeed, they did. However, they also disagreed with Robert and me. Below, are the all responses from the groups at each training, as well as Robert’s determination. Notice the variety of responses that was generated within each training.

DOK RK Response

The choices that earned  the most votes looked like this.

DOK RK tops

Notice that there is not a single example in which all three parties agree. I have no profound analysis of these results; I am simply sharing this very curious experience. I am still pondering the outcomes and their meaning many times over. So much so, that whenever I hear the phrase “D.O.K.,” I smirk and scratch my head.

Common Core and The Land of Oz

Oz FourThe Common Core is a noble cause. Who would argue that teaching kids to think and communicate their thinking is anything but a virtuous goal? It’s like the Emerald City in the Land of Oz, and standing between us and that bright shining city is a Wicked Witch and a bunch of Flying Monkeys. We know how the movie ends, though; we will melt that witch and make it down the Yellow Brick Road.

I made this comparison for a news reporter after my keynote address at the Idaho State Math Conference last fall. My analogy made NPG News at the same time that my math coaching colleagues and I back at Temecula Valley Unified were developing a four-year plan for professional development and student support in our district. So we wove the Wizard of Oz theme into our plan.

It turned out to be more than a catchy metaphor. The theme is actually quite symbolic to the trials and potentials of rolling out the common core.

4 Year PlanLet’s begin with the Emerald City. The Common Core claims to teach students 21st Century skills. In our district, we have summed up those skills as the ability to “Think and Communicate.” This, then, is our noble cause, our shining city.

Along the Yellow Brick Road is the infamous Wicked Witch and her Flying Monkeys. Our number one issue for teachers in Year 1 of the roll out was the lack of resources, and therefore, the demand upon them to find and create their own curricula. We did not anticipate this phenomenon, but it quickly consumed our role as math coaches. Our first year will end (hopefully), with Units, Pacing Guides & Model Lessons in place, and with an infrastructure to share them among the 130 secondary teachers in our district. Since this is by far the biggest obstacle facing us, and the ugliest work to overcome, establishing the content, scope and sequence gets the tag as the Wicked Witch. In Year 2 (the first of the Flying Monkeys) our primary purpose is to change our method of first instruction. The Common Core is calling for radical shifts in how we teach as well as what we teach, so that will be the focus of Year 2. Year 3 then focuses on what to do for those students who don’t get it (Tier 2 intervention). Finally, while we continue with the work that we laid out in the first three years, Year 4 will emphasize enrichment for students who easily learn the material and on implementing student use of technology.

Reflection FrameWhile many of the obstacles listed above deal with the work of us math coaches, the work of the teachers is personified by the four main characters of Oz: Dorothy, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion and Scarecrow. Their training is structured around the four Essential Questions of a PLC (Professional Learning Community). Dorothy must go first, because she was all about direction (“There’s no place like home.”)  So she asks the question, “What do we want the students to know and be able to do?” The Common Core has defined this question very clearly for us, particularly when it comes to the Mathematical Practices. We summed up these practices on a Reflection Fame that we use to debrief with teachers after our elbow coaching sessions. Year 2 calls upon the Tin Man, because it takes a heart to care for those students who don’t get it, especially in secondary schools. We are now commissioned to deliver a “guaranteed and viable curriculum to ALL students.” Year 2 will focus then on Tier 1 interventions … reaching and teaching ‘those kids’ … within the classroom. In order to do this we must have formative assessment and data collection protocols in place to be able answer the question “How do we know if they know it?” The Lion personifies Year 3, because it will take Courage to deliver Tier 2 intervention in response to “What do we do when they don’t know it?” Then, to answer the question “What do we do when they do know it?,” the Scarecrow and his brain will be employed in Year 4, when all the mighty work of the first three years is in place, and we can focus on the needs of the advanced students and on teaching all students to Think with and Communicate through technology.

Finally, and most importantly, we turn our attention to the students results. These are personified by who else, but the Munchkins. We plan to establish Student Mile Markers. These will be Performance Task benchmarks that will be given each year with the Final Exams (but not necessarily counted in a grade) to be used as a gauge to our collective progress (that of students, teachers, coaches and administrators) down the Yellow Brick Road.

The Wizard of Oz gives us a nice frame to dialogue within, but it also offers an important lesson for all teachers. The Wizard gave Dorothy and her friends absolutely nothing, other than the realization that they already had inside each of them that which they had been seeking all along. As do we. Brains, Courage, a Heart, and a Direction Home.

Common Core Pathways: Redefining Algebra

PathwaysI have fielded a great many questions lately regarding the creation of Common Core Pathways (course sequences), especially in regards to the big question: to accelerate or not to accelerate. I appreciate the curiosity, because in this last year I did a great deal of investigating in order to help my school district develop our own pathways. I recently had a request to share our pathways “with commentary.” This makes sense, since there are many misconceptions of the Common Core out there that I had to sort through, and the rationale for these pathways will help others decide if these will work for their system. So I share four things:

1) A primer for the Common Core Pathways, particularly in terms of Algebra content.
2) The needs of my district that led to the development of three pathways.
3) The actual Pathways that my district decided upon, with links to resources that helped us get there.
4) Student placement.

I hope this helps.

A Common Core Pathways Primer

The Common Core spells out clearly what students are expected to know at each grade level K-8. Then for high school it lumps the standards together in High School Domains (Number & Quantity, Algebra, Geometry, Functions, Statistics & Probability and Modeling). This is done in order to allow high schools to structure courses in a Traditional Model (Algebra 1, Geometry, Algebra 2) or an Integrated Model (Math 1, 2, 3). At first glance it looks like CCSS is now delaying Algebra until 9th grade, after years of states pushing it in the 8th grade. This is because CCSS does not define Algebra as a course, but rather a domain across grade levels. Understanding this is key to creating accelerated pathways.

Traditionally, an Algebra course is seen as starting with the arithmetic (integers & fractions) and the simplifying of expressions (which many consider to be Pre-Algebra), followed by solving of equations, then moving onto linear equations and systems by the end of first semester, with polynomials, quadratics and rational expressions rounding out second semester. In other words, we go from balancing a check book to racing cars to launching rockets in a single year. However, the Core spreads these concepts out over several years. Arithmetic, simplifying and basic solving is mastered in 6th grade. Solving multi-step equations and deeply understanding rates and ratios is the focus of 7th grade. The 8th grade standards focus on linear equations and systems. While Geometry topics like surface area, volume and transformations are spread throughout the middle school grade levels, along with probability & statistics, the key here is to see that the entire first semester of a traditional algebra course is covered by the end of 8th grade. This way, the students can be handed an exponential function when they walk in the door on the first day of their freshman Algebra class. So don’t get it wrong; students under the common core are still learning Algebra in middle school; they are just not finishing it. The Common Core does not delay the Algebra course for students; it simply redefines Algebra.

No More Than 3, Sometimes 4

Tim Kanold once shared with me the pathways created at Stevenson HS in Illinois. He claimed that they had two pathways… one pathway led to Calculus, another to Pre-Calculus. It was actually one pathway: Algebra 1, Geometry, Algebra 2, Pre-Calculus, Calculus. What made this sequence look like two pathways was the course that students enrolled in as freshmen (Algebra 1 vs Geometry). Stevenson HS offered a ride on a single train; the only variation was which boxcar a student boarded when arriving at high school. I ask Tim if every student graduated with a minimum of Pre-Calculus. He said that while 58% of the seniors graduated with Calculus, some only took three years of math. When I pressed for the pathway offered for special education students and the like, he conceded that those rare few were allowed to deviate from the given path. He stated, “Create only 1 path, no more than 2, and sometimes 3.”

My district embraced this idea, but we have one more level of need. My high school has an International Baccalaureate (IB) Program. In order for students to be able to reach its “Higher Level,” we need some students to come into high school taking Algebra 2 as freshmen. Furthermore, while California only requires two years of math, my district requires three, and the state still only requires Algebra 1 to graduate, not Algebra 2. Therefore, students on an IEP may take Middle School math classes through our Special Education Department, and anyone passing Algebra 1 may take Accounting to complete the third year.

With all that, my district adopted a “No more than 3, sometimes 4,” policy. These  3+ pathways are shown below.

The Pathways for Temecula Valley Unified

Pathways Math

Our district decided to stick with our traditional model. The scope and sequence of our “Common Core Pathway” is very similar to what the Dana Center of Texas produced. We also took some inspiration from Montgomery Schools in Maryland (scroll to the bottom of their page, and you will see a graphic very similar to ours) and Tulare County in California which beautifully laid out the scope and sequence for both the traditional and integrated models.

The Traditional Pathway allows students to reach Pre-Calculus or other similar 4-year college options. There are two keys to notice here. One, there is no remedial track. All mainstreamed students will be taking Algebra and Geometry. This is freaking out teachers who are anticipating having a significant number of “those kids” in college prep classes. They have told me that the kids won’t be properly prepared. I pushed back claiming that the kids will be ready, but I am not sure we teachers will be ready. (side note: Professional development training is imperative to make this work.). The second key to notice is that there are two types of Algebra 2 courses. Our Pre AP course was designed with the Common Core plus standards (+) included, for those students who intend to go beyond Calculus AB (Calculus BC or IB). For details on other courses shown in the diagram visit the Math Department at Great Oak High School.

The Accelerated Pathway was an easy adjustment. If we note the definition of Algebra explained above, then in 8th grade we teach a traditional Algebra course, substituting the Geometry and Stats topics for the Pre-Algebra topics. 6th and 7th grade remain untouched. Two years of math is condensed into one.

The Compacted Pathway was a bit trickier to create. In the past, students who wanted to take Geometry as 8th graders, simply skipped 6th grade math and got to Algebra 1 by 7th grade. That’s no so easily done now under the Common Core. So we have to compress 4 years of courses (6th, 7th, Algebra & Geometry) into 3 years as shown.

NOTE: Now that we have implemented these three pathways, I would only recommend the first two. Unfortunately, the Compacted Pathway is too much for both students and teachers. Since our high schools still need a means for students to reach Calculus B/C and beyond, it appears best to have that relatively small and uniquely talented population to accelerate in high school, through summer school, online options or Junior College courses.

Choosing a Pathway

The big question that follows after creating these pathways is “Which students are assigned which pathway?”  Or more to the point “Who gets to Accelerate?” We actually would like to see the majority of students follow the Traditional Pathway. For our upper level high school math programs to thrive, we need at least 20% of the middle school students on the Accelerated Pathway, and a little under 10% for the Compacted. Of course, we shouldn’t fit students to the needs of the school. The students are to be recommended by ability based on assessments and teacher recommendations. Our schools need to be watchful, though, because our community has parents who feel their child won’t be able to compete for a top college if they are in the bottom track. While some vigilance will be necessary, we also have an open access policy… students/parents may take any courses they wish. I am curious how these pathways portion out.

Furthermore on placement, another of Stevenson High’s policies that my district is adopting next year is the practice of moving students onto the next course … even if they flunk. I have also heard this same pitch from Bill Lombard. So, if a student flunks Algebra, the student enrolls in Geometry the following year, and makes up the class in summer school, online remediation or concurrently. Same thing is true when going from Geometry to Algebra 2. However, if a student fails Algebra 2, they may repeat, since these students have multiple options at this level (Trig, Stats, PreCalc, etc.). Needless to say, our teachers have a great deal to get done in terms of Intervention and Standards Based Grading to make this work.

I hope this helps those of you that are planning ahead. My district and its teachers still have a great deal of work ahead of us, so please share here what you learn in the construction of your own pathways.