“Before the advent of the Common Core State Standards, we were an Explicit Direct Instruction district with strong fidelity to the textbook,” says Victoria Armstrong, Director of Curriculum for Dinuba Unified, a rural school district in Central California. “Our instructional approach didn’t completely sync with the Common Core, which made it challenging for teachers to dig into the new standards in a way that was palatable to them.” Adding to the initial challenge, she says, was a lack of quality materials to help educators implement the Common Core.

Fortunately, Dinuba became one of 10 diverse districts across California to participate in Math in Common (MiC), a robust, multi-year initiative launched in 2013. Through a cross-district community of practice, the initiative brought together teams of administrators and educators to support each other as their districts grappled with the challenges of effectively implementing the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics (CCSS-M) in grades K–8. Funded by the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, MiC was buoyed by a partnership between WestEd, which provided evaluation and technical assistance to MiC districts, and California Education Partners, a nonprofit that designed the MiC community of practice to help districts develop and exchange tools and lessons learned about standards implementation.

“The CCSS-M required a big shift for math educators — moving away from memorization, drills, and rote procedures toward a focus on fostering deeper conceptual understanding of mathematical principles and mathematical practices that develop across grade levels,” says Rebecca Perry, a senior program associate at WestEd who helped lead MiC.

“For us, being part of Math in Common has been transformative,” says Armstrong, whose district serves about 6,500 students, with 82 percent on free and reduced-price lunches and 33 percent designated as English learners. “The support we’ve gotten from experts, partners, and other districts has really accelerated our progress.”

WestEd recently published a series of six summative reports (available to download for free) that share learnings, best practices, and recommendations from MiC. Analyses published in one of those reports, Spotlight on Student Achievement, indicate that MiC districts have shown some promising signs on the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP). For instance, school-level analyses of student achievement on the CAASPP in mathematics revealed that elementary schools in MiC districts made greater progress on the CAASPP from 2016[1] to 2018 than did schools in other districts across California. Student-level analyses indicated substantial achievement variation among districts, but also showed that each MiC district improved its score on the CAASPP more quickly over at least a one-year period than the state average.

Sharing best practices

“Leaders don’t often get time to talk with people in their own district, let alone those from other districts,” says Perry. Through the initiative’s community of practice, district leaders had the “unique opportunity to collaborate and learn from what others had to offer, both on an individual and a district level.”

Access to outside educators and expertise is a special boon for remote districts like Dinuba, says Lisa Benslay, the principal of Jefferson Elementary in the Dinuba District. Talking with individuals from other districts allowed Dinuba’s leaders to see what else was out there and to get answers to questions such as: Did you adopt the GO Math! curriculum? How have you incorporated formative assessments? “Sometimes you need someone with fresh eyes to see your situation,” Benslay says.

“Being part of Math in Common has been transformative. The support we’ve gotten from experts, partners, and other districts has really accelerated our progress.”

The Dinuba District has adapted more than one idea from other districts, says Benslay. “Although [the other MiC] districts are completely different from ours, we were able to see how certain practices worked for them and consider how they might work for us.”

One idea that Dinuba borrowed from Garden Grove Unified turned into what the district now calls the PLC Huddle. “We pay a stipend to a teacher at each grade at each school to be a professional learning community leader,” says Armstrong. “We built their capacity to do the collective work together, using the framework [shared with districts through MiC]. And these leaders meet with each other once a month to share what they’ve learned.”

Instructional leadership: Principals are pivotal

Math in Common has produced a rich matrix of best practices for policymakers and practitioners alike, says Perry. “This includes findings and guidance on how to advance school site improvement, foster role-diverse sense-making teams to help with implementation, and build professional development structures that help teachers think carefully about their instruction so they can support ongoing improvement.” Perry encourages readers to check out the suite of summative reports from the first five years of the initiative, which offer “a ton of practical insights and recommendations about what it takes to support standards implementation.”

One of the big takeaways of the initiative, says Perry, is the need for districts to support effective math instructional leadership by principals. This is particularly important because many districts have shifted their teacher professional learning from centralized off-site training to learning that occurs directly at the schools. And with more site-specific training available for teachers, “principals become more of a bridge between districts and school sites than in the past,” says Benslay. To become instructional leaders, says Benslay, principals need a clear understanding of the content-area standards, the capacity to recognize good instruction, and the ability to coach. “If teachers are not self-motivated early adopters, we need to be that for them.”

But the learning curve is often steep, notes Benslay. Many principals have never taught math, or have been out of the classroom since before the CCSS-M, making it difficult for them to fully understand the content and instructional demands of the new standards. Realizing the pivotal role that principals play, MiC districts found various ways to empower their principals to lead CCSS-M instruction at their sites.

Connecting district math staff with principals. Many MiC districts created at least one type of regular structured meeting at which principals could interact with district math staff. These meetings benefited principals in multiple ways, including serving as a form of professional learning that enabled them to become more familiar with math instruction and the district’s math vision.

Encouraging principals to attend teacher professional development. In districts where principals were expected to attend teacher professional development alongside their teachers, principals were much better positioned to offer teachers feedback about instruction and to understand whether and how the districts’ focal mathematics instructional practices were playing out for teachers and students.

Having principals conduct classroom observation. MiC districts encouraged and supported principals to first develop an understanding of the CCSS-M and to then observe math classes at their sites, with a focus on looking for evidence of CCSS-M–aligned instruction. Principals should observe some productive struggle among students, as well as teachers doing advance planning, predicting a variety of potential student actions, and knowing how to respond to each, says Benslay. Can students produce answers in multiple ways? Do they truly understand the concept and can they tell you about it? “Those are the kinds of things we look for when we go into classrooms,” Benslay says. “Not a page filled with 25 problems that students turn in at the end of a lesson. Not the ‘sage on the stage.’”

Because teachers may feel vulnerable as they are experimenting with new standards-aligned instructional approaches, notes Perry, principals need to make it clear that they are observing classes not to evaluate the teachers but to support them.

Ultimately, the classroom observations became a valuable form of professional learning for principals — allowing them to gain a better grasp of what sort of instructional issues teachers were grappling with and how the standards were playing out in the classrooms.

Moving forward

To be effective in implementing the CCSS-M, says Armstrong, schools and districts need three things. “First, have the internal people to support the efforts — at least one math instructional specialist or coach. Second, have a math leadership team composed of coaches, district leadership, principals, and a couple of outside people from the county office. This has been central to our continued ability to make change.”

The third element is patience, she says. “At the state level, people are nervous because the math scores have stayed pretty flat on CAASPP. But we have to realize that teachers have a lot of conceptual and content gaps because they didn’t learn math this way themselves. It is a big, deep shift for them. We have to be patient and put supports in place.”

Benslay agrees: “Give it time. Time, funding, and understanding.”

With only three years of CAASPP data available, it’s early to fully assess student progress — but important shifts are beginning to manifest. Says Benslay, “I’m seeing students more engaged and getting better at understanding concepts, not just learning the rote steps of how to do math.”


[1] 2015 was the first year that the CAASPP was administered statewide.