Document 11667569

Highlights of
Practices Worthy of Attention
Local Innovations in Strengthening
Secondary Mathematics
Pamela L. Paek, Ph.D.
Senior Research Associate
tates and districts are looking for practices and strategies that can help them do their
work more effectively. As one powerful example, the Urban Mathematics Leadership
Network1, which currently includes mathematics leaders from 18 major urban school
districts, is engaged in identifying innovative practices that show promise of improving
secondary mathematics teaching and learning and that specifically address district-level
The overarching challenge for schools and districts is how to organize educationally
productive support for teachers and students in complex educational systems. Given
the current democratization of access to advanced mathematics courses, teachers
must engage a far more diverse group of students in their classrooms than ever before.
This challenge emanates from the fact that we now require almost all students to
take advanced mathematics courses that once were the province of a privileged few.
Schools and districts must create support systems that enable a very demographically
and academically diverse population of students to master demanding academic
content. The solutions to this challenge require work at the district, school,
department, and classroom levels.
In 2006–2007 the Dana Center conducted a national search for innovative practices
in urban schools and districts that show promise of increasing student learning
in secondary mathematics. We call these practices worthy of attention, and we
found 22 programs, schools, and districts with such practices. Our first step in
our practices worthy of attention work was to spend time with practitioners in
each school or district to surface the theory of action behind the practice and
to document its implementation and the evidence of its effectiveness thus far.
We wanted to portray interesting local practices that we believe have merit
and that practitioners have invested considerable energy in developing and
implementing, honor those practices, and provide practitioners with feedback
that would give them an outside perspective on their ideas and efforts.
Ultimately, our practices worthy of attention work has four overarching
To better understand innovative practices—in particular settings—that
show promise of improving secondary mathematics teaching and
learning and mark these practices for further development and
scientific inquiry.
2.To identify common themes across these practices that can be used to strengthen student achievement in urban education systems across
the country.
The UMLN is a partnership between the Dana Center and Achieve, Inc.
A joint initiative of Achieve, Inc.
and The Charles A. Dana Center
at The University of Texas at Austin
3. To aid practitioners in strengthening their work
by providing them with research support to help
them more rigorously evaluate how well these
practices are working.
advanced mathematics courses and providing
necessary support for students in those courses, and
embedding intense student support in the daily
4. To select especially effective practices and
reengineer them for use at scale.
The full study, available at,
presents an executive summary, two cross-case analyses,
and profiles of the 22 identified program, school, and district
Defining Practices
Worthy of Attention
Practices worthy of attention differs from related
work on “best practices” or “promising practices” in
that it focuses on new practices—innovative efforts
and ideas currently in development or early in their
implementation. Starting with practices that have
not yet been identified as “best” or “promising”
through specific national criteria, such as those of the
What Works Clearinghouse or the National Center
for Educational Achievement, means that there is
often little or no documentation of how a practice
is being implemented, and scarce evidence of the
practice’s effectiveness. These practices do, however,
resonate with leading urban mathematics education
practitioners, and are therefore likely to spread. It is
thus especially important to subject these practices to
rigorous scientific scrutiny.
The 22 practices worthy of attention address two specific
1. how to raise student achievement and improve
student learning in secondary mathematics and
2. how to increase teacher capacity to help students
master challenging mathematics content.
Raising Student Achievement
The schools and districts profiled in this section
have focused particularly on academic intensification
strategies to help students meet higher expectations.
Academic intensification strategies include expecting
higher levels of achievement for all students and
providing targeted and intense support to help
students master the content of challenging courses.
The academic intensification strategies we observed
include providing summer bridge programs, requiring
Raising student achievement requires changes in
the attitudes and practices of administrators,
teachers, and students. In summer bridge programs
like the Academic Youth Development Initiative (a
Dana Center program) and Step Up to High School
(a Chicago Public Schools program), students learn
about the value of academic effort and build peer
and teacher relationships that will support them
throughout high school. These two programs are not
remedial; they focus instead on developing problemsolving skills that form a foundation for success
in Algebra I. They also build supports for a more productive academic culture in ninth-grade Algebra
courses. Both programs also include communitybuilding components that introduce and reinforce
ideas about how students learn and ensure that
students entering ninth grade already know some
teachers and peers and have developed a supportive
academic network. To be effective, these programs
require firm belief on the part of teachers that their
students can succeed in high school mathematics
and that collegial student peer groups can be a
strong support for that success.
• Requiring rigorous courses of all students demands a change in how districts and schools think about
student ability, advising, and scheduling. Four sites
profiled in this study set specific course-completion
goals for their students and then backward-mapped
the curriculum to better prepare students on the
mathematical strands and topics they would later be
required to know. Each site also found ways to
support students and help them do well in the more
advanced courses. Bellevue School District’s goal
is for all students to pass Precalculus before high
school graduation; El Paso Collaborative for
Academic Excellence requires all students to
complete Algebra II; Grant High School’s goal is for all
students to pass Geometry by their sophomore year;
and Norfolk Public Schools requires that all students
pass Algebra I in eighth grade.
To meet higher expectations, districts and schools are embedding intense student supports in their
daily schedules. Some small schools, like Eastside
College Preparatory School, High Tech High, and YES
College Preparatory School, build in such supports
as a regular part of students’ schooling, to reinforce
and model the idea that mathematics is important
and that—with hard work and a strong network
Highlights of Practices Worthy of Attention
of teacher and peer support—all students can
pass rigorous mathematics courses. Larger schools
are challenged by high student-to-teacher ratios and
thus use different strategies for embedding student
support. For example, Evanston Township High
School uses tutorial programs and extra time
for mathematics instruction as part of its daily
embedded student support structure.
Building Teacher Capacity
All the profiled practices designed to build teacher
capacity provide opportunities for teachers to
improve or diversify their current practices through
focused interactions with other teachers and through
access to innovative tools for teaching. The effective
implementation of these teacher-capacity practices
requires significant support from administrators, and
this requires that administrators develop new sets
of management skills. Just as teachers are tasked to
enable students with more diverse experiences and
backgrounds to succeed in rigorous courses, districts
and schools must provide greater differentiated
support for their teachers. The practices surfaced in
our study fall into three broad categories: redefining
mathematics teacher roles and responsibilities, making
instruction public, and providing new, customizable
tools for teaching.
With broadened roles and responsibilities, teachers are redefining how they think about teaching and
the contributions they make to their students’ learning. In several districts, mathematics teacher
work has been redefined to include responsibility
for working with other school professionals to serve
targeted subpopulations of students perceived to
be at high risk of failure. In other districts, a
significant number of mathematics teachers have responsibilities for broad district initiatives.
Examples include initiatives that are building
common assessments for use at the district level
and initiatives focused on strategically improving
district mathematics programming. In Denver Public
Schools, mathematics teachers work closely with
other school professionals who specialize in teaching
students with special needs (i.e., those with
individual education plans). New York City is
implementing a well-developed strategy for crosstraining mathematics lead teachers with English
language learner resource staff. In Portland Public
Schools and Lamoille South Supervisory Union,
mathematics teachers are working on district
strategies for strengthening their core mathematics
programs. In the Dana Center’s Partnership for
High Achievement districts, leaders and teachers
Highlights of Practices Worthy of Attention
work together to communicate and sustain common
goals with concrete steps for systemically improving
classroom practices.
With instruction made public, teachers can work
collaboratively to ensure that all students have
access to a high-quality curriculum and can learn
from each other using productive classroom
strategies. Structured observation protocols and
opportunities for feedback make teacher
collaboration more productive than would be the case in informal collaborative settings. Among
the sites we observed, three districts, one charter
school, and one multidistrict initiative have made
open classrooms a major part of their mathematics
improvement plans. Bellevue School District
provides common lessons and assessments for its
teachers and requires teachers to post all assessment
data on the district’s intranet. Columbus Public
Schools has teachers observe each other with a
structured observation protocol and provide
feedback in weekly professional learning
communities. Phoenix Union High School District
standardized the goals and strategies of teaching
and learning through Algebra I professional learning
communities. YES College Preparatory School has
a teacher evaluation system that provides feedback
through structured observations by peers, supervisors, and coaches throughout the school year.
The Silicon Valley Mathematics Initiative has coaches
working frequently with teachers to improve their
mathematics pedagogy. In all these sites, teachers
learning from other teachers is increasingly common.
With new tools and customized support, teachers can access the individual training and feedback
they need to make good practices part of their
daily instruction. One program and three districts we
studied provide customizable training to help
teachers acquire new tools and strategies to improve
their teaching practices. Agile Mind (in partnership
with the Dana Center) is an education service,
including an online tool, that supports and models
sustainable teaching practices in a host of secondary
mathematics courses (from middle school
mathematics through AP Calculus). Anchorage
School District developed its own Assessment
Reporting System, a comprehensive database system
that follows students longitudinally with all the data
that was previously kept in their paper cumulative
folders. Boston Public Schools’ secondary
mathematics coaches have devised a new way of
developing teacher capacity with an approach that
the district calls asset-based instruction. Cleveland
Municipal School District is showing its teachers
Next Steps
The practices we have identified address challenges that virtually all American school districts
must face. In too many cases, however, school districts create their solutions to these challenges
from scratch and in isolation. Practices worthy of attention is designed to be a more effective
approach to collaborative learning and to the dissemination of creative solutions to difficult
educational problems. The next phase of this work includes partnering Dana Center researchers
with selected schools and districts to raise the standards of evidence by which we measure the
effectiveness of these practices and to extract the ideas that are key to reengineering them for
use at scale. This new work will enable the fulfillment of another of our key purposes: focusing
the attention of researchers on emerging practices in urban education and on the ways in
which districts can respond most constructively to new policy directions and pressures.
Practices Worthy of Attention is a joint initiative of Achieve, Inc. (, and the Charles A. Dana Center at
The University of Texas at Austin ( The initiative is led by Pamela L. Paek, a senior research
associate at the Dana Center. An executive summary, two cross-case analyses, and the 22 profiles are available
An executive summary, two cross-case
analyses, and the 22 profiles are available
at the Dana Center website at
Each of the promising innovations surfaced in this project makes use of powerful ideas and
practitioner insights to address the particulars of each school or district’s local environment. In
making use of this work, practitioners will need to think about their own local circumstances
and needs. The next step of our project is to choose the best of the practices we have found and,
working with teams of practitioners, researchers, and designers, reengineer these practices for
use at scale. This task requires that we develop a deep understanding, not only of the potential
effect of an innovation on student performance, but of why the particular innovation has an
effect. We need to understand why the ideas work, not just that they do work. This knowledge
will enable us to build tools that can be customized and adapted for use in the widest range
of settings. The practices worthy of attention should be viewed as existence proofs, giving
confidence and hope to practitioners that the challenges they face can be solved in their
districts. Our goal is not only to honor the work of particular practitioners, but to surface their
insights in ways that are useful to other practitioners and to tool developers and program
The Charles A. Dana Center
The University of Texas at Austin
2901 N. IH 35, Suite 2.200
Austin, TX 78722-2348
how to use assessment for learning techniques to adjust and customize instruction while it is
taking place so that teachers can immediately address students’ learning needs.