MATHEMATICS COACHING:
A NEXT STEP IN THE NC-PIMS MATHEMATICS LEADERSHIP
INITIATIVE

 

by
Alice Brown, K-5 Mathematics Facilitator, NC-PIMS
Kathy Harris, K-5 Mathematics Facilitator, NC-PIMS
Joyce Hodges, K-5 Mathematics Facilitator, NC-PIMS
Ray Jernigan, 6-12 Mathematics Facilitator, NC-PIMS

 

 

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Abstract | Paper | References

 


The Promise of a Dynamic Mathematics Classroom: Technology at Work

Abstract:
            An examination of the importance of high-quality teachers and influential factors in the development of such teachers for increasing student achievement.

 

MATHEMATICS COACHING:
A NEXT STEP IN THE NC-PIMS MATHEMATICS LEADERSHIP INITIATIVE

 

The importance of high-quality teachers has never been as evident as it is in the twenty-first century.  The North Carolina Professional Teaching Standards Commission believes “the quality of teaching is the single most important factor in achieving quality schools.  No innovation or effective school reform can take place if teachers are not equipped, prepared, and eager to implement change.”  In one form or another, most people have heard the maxim that “ ‘student learning depends first, last, and always on the quality of teachers.’  Experts may disagree about how highly to value the size of a class or school, how the system functions, or whether it is adequately funded–but nobody’s list of education’s priorities fails to place teacher quality at or very near the top” (School Leadership for the 21st Century Initiative 2001, p.1).  Research in New York City Schools involving high– and low–achieving schools with similar populations indicates that “teacher qualification accounted for more than 90 percent of the variations in students’ achievement in reading and mathematics at all grade levels tested” (Darling-Hammond and Ball 1997).

We live in an age of constant change, requiring us to examine the ways we teach and learn mathematics.  Teachers themselves have had limited opportunities to learn mathematics in a meaningful way.  As most teachers teach in the way they were taught, it is imperative to break the cycle of lecturer presenting information and procedures to students.  High-quality professional development, which continues over time focusing on deep mathematical insights, students as learners of mathematics, and effective mathematical pedagogy, will make a difference for teachers.

The North Carolina Partnership for Improving Mathematics and Science (NC-PIMS), a comprehensive mathematics and science grant co-funded by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Science Foundation, began work with mathematics Facilitators and Lead Teachers in August 2003.  The vision of NC-PIMS is to improve the mathematics learning of all students, while simultaneously closing the achievement gaps between racial and ethnic groups.  The vision is supported by the following three goals: develop leadership and policies to support instruction in mathematics; create and deliver high quality professional development to teachers; and design and implement activities which encourage students to remain engaged in mathematics learning.

Teachers were identified in local schools of participating eastern North Carolina districts to become trained as mathematics Lead Teachers with guidance and support from mathematics Facilitators and university faculty.  Training for these Lead Teachers focused on mathematical content and pedagogy, as well as leadership skills, preparing them for presenting professional development to their local faculties and assuming content leadership roles in their schools.

Though NC-PIMS has been able to provide professional development through Lead Teachers that has touched all teachers in the participating districts, the efforts have only “scratched the surface” in making long–lasting changes in the teaching and learning of mathematics for all teachers in the districts.  Because of the large numbers of teachers involved in the project and the limited number of Facilitators, Lead Teachers for each district were prepared to deliver the same professional development to the teachers in their schools.  Though all schools did receive the same professional development, elementary schools received their instruction at their own schools and from Lead Teachers who were a part of the faculty of the school.

As the NC-PIMS grant finishes its final year, there are several important issues and questions to consider.  How can districts build upon the four years of work with Lead Teachers to sustain the development of their leadership capacity, mathematics content knowledge, and pedagogical content knowledge%3f  How might teachers in these local schools continue to receive quality mathematics professional development%3f

First of all, it is important to understand what makes teacher professional development effective.  Linda Darling-Hammond and Milbrey W. McLaughlin set forth the following essential features of effective teacher professional development:

 
The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has identified the following elements of an effective professional development program for mathematics:

These elements of professional development are quite different from the traditional sense of workshops where teachers attend “sit and get” sessions provided by a consultant who is brought in to the site.  Instead the “professional development involves ‘just-in-time’ learning that occurs during the regular workday” (Roy 2004, p. 2).  Collegial and collaborative work among teachers occurs over time and the professional development becomes embedded in the teachers’ practice.  Artifacts such as student sample work and videos of classroom activities used strategically in professional development help develop teachers’ content and pedagogical knowledge as well as their beliefs about student learning (Driscoll 2005-2006, p. 1).

What vehicle could districts employ that would fit these features for professional development building upon and extending the instructional capacity of Lead Teachers in their districts%3f  One promising strategy, being employed successfully by some districts as a part of their overall teacher professional development plan, is coaching.  At its best, coaching adheres to the characteristics of effective professional development listed previously.  Coaching provides on-going, sustained, practice-based, context-sensitive support for the improvement of teaching and learning of mathematics.  It allows for “professional development experiences that will have the potential to transform teachers’ knowledge, beliefs, and habits of practice by making direct connections with the practice of teaching” (Smith 2001, p. 2).  It also speaks to the National Staff Development Council’s goal stated at their website:  “All teachers in all schools will experience high-quality professional learning as a part of their daily work.”

Even though the important foundation of mathematical thinking for students is shaped during the early years, elementary teachers are prepared as generalists with a broad knowledge for every discipline.  Much of the emphasis at this level is on literacy.  Traditionally, teachers have had minimum preparation in mathematics content or pedagogy limiting their ability to teach mathematics for conceptual understanding. According to Francis (Skip) Fennell, current President of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, a mathematics Lead Teacher/specialist/coach “is needed because the pre-service background and general teaching responsibilities of elementary teachers do not typically furnish the continuous development of specialized knowledge required for teaching mathematics today” (Fennell 2006, p. 3).  President Fennell also advocates support for middle and high school mathematics teachers as they shift their pedagogy to reflect current research on student learning.

Though a coach’s duties and responsibilities can be varied according to the specific definition applied in various settings, a mathematics coach could be defined generally as a teacher leader who focuses attention on helping other teachers improve instruction in mathematics, whose “role is characterized by facilitation of learning and not on evaluation of practice” (Loucks-Horsley et al. 2003, p. 206).  Responsibilities for mathematics coaches can include helping teachers implement their new knowledge and practices in their classrooms and providing a collegial environment for improvement without evaluation.  More specific roles could include helping teachers develop and implement lesson plans, researching materials, working with new teachers, modeling lessons, and providing professional development sessions for teachers (Neufeld and Roper 2003, pp. 8-10).  According to The Math Coach Field Guide, the common goal for all mathematics coaches is “to support mathematics learning of all students by supporting teachers to improve their teaching of mathematics” (Felux and Snowdy 2006, p. ix).

Recognizing the need for mathematics coaches, where might districts find these specialists%3f  Lead Teachers in the NC-PIMS project could be possible candidates for this role based on their experiences for the last three years in developing their leadership and instructional capacity with a primary focus on the development of their mathematical content knowledge.  To transition from Lead Teacher to mathematics coach, the Lead Teachers would need additional classroom support from a coach giving them the experience of being coached.  This coach would work with selected Lead Teachers in targeted schools on their personal professional development needs as part of the overall district plan for increasing student achievement.

As the support from the NC-PIMS Facilitators for Lead Teachers comes to an end in July 2007, school districts need a plan to capitalize on the investments of human resources developed during the project.  During the 2007-2008 school year, Lead Teachers will continue to deliver professional development to their staffs as they have done for the past three years, but without the support of the project Facilitators.  This would be an opportune time for districts to employ mathematics coaches to work with and provide special attention to selected Lead Teachers being groomed for the future role of mathematics coaches.  This begins the process of “growing one’s own coaches” by nurturing the seeds planted by NC-PIMS.

Coaching became a viable component of on-going and intense professional development during the initiative of New York City’s Community School District 2 in 1997.  “The results of instructional reform in Community School District 2 in New York City provide a compelling example of how coaching can support improved teaching and student achievement when it is embedded in a sustained, coherent, districtwide effort to improve instruction” (Neufeld and Roper 2003, p. 1).  Districts interested in implementing instructional mathematical coaches as a part of their overall reform strategy and professional development plan need to understand that the ultimate success of that implementation depends on the district’s support and involvement.  Though “the work of coaching is highly localized and the principal plays a key role in the program, . . . it is the district that needs to shape the coaches’ role, focus the coaches’ work around the district’s instructional goals, and articulate the connection between that work and schools’ overall reform strategy” (Neufeld and Roper 2003, p. 15).  Kate Cress shares several things district leaders should consider in their role of supporter for teacher leaders:

In conclusion, we believe that a highly qualified teacher is the single most influential factor in a student’s achievement.  Teachers are being asked to teach in ways incongruent with their experience and educational preparation.  If they are to be effective teachers engaging students in constructing mathematical knowledge and understanding, then high-quality, practice-based professional development is needed to effect change in the classroom.  We believe that mathematics coaching is an effective strategy that will provide intense, ongoing, and transformative teaching and learning in the classroom, resulting in increased student achievement in mathematics.  Therefore, we recommend that local school districts consider implementing mathematics coaching as an integral component of their overall professional development plan for the future.

 


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