Thursday / June 17

C.A.R.E. to Build Back Better in Math Education

As educators, we agree our post-pandemic goal shouldn’t be to go back to the way things were. It’s a time for a creative reimagination. How can we right some of the pre-existing wrongs and help our systems, structures, and mathematics instruction rebound in ways that serve each and every student better than ever before? The next school year is the ideal time for schools and districts to embark on a more cohesive and collaborative approach to mathematics learning. We propose that this starts with a Mathematics Whole School Agreement (MWSA), which is a tool for targeting students’ learning needs and moving them forward through deep and meaningful mathematics learning. It is a way to configure math instruction that is consistent, coherent, systemic, and systematic. There are three key benefits to adopting an MWSA:

  1. It provides the stability and consistency students need to reacclimate to the learning environment and moves forward. Never has it been more important to have teacher teams align the mathematics they teach across grades or courses rather than repeating or mismatching mathematics instruction from one class to the next. When students move from grade to grade and experience consistent messaging and familiar approaches and strategies, they can launch into more sophisticated ideas. They no longer see mathematics as a set of new, mysterious, and disconnected tricks and tips.
  1. It ensures equity in mathematics education. The pandemic fully exposed how urgently we must provide accessible and equitable learning opportunities for all students. Our system was always fraught with inequities, but the pandemic amplified these differences and created even further disparities. Now’s the time to do the repair work. We must provide the equitable classroom experiences that build on strengths and develop student agency.
  1. It puts an end to the “Teacher Lottery.” This is the scenario where families feel relieved when their child is assigned a specific teacher who they believe provides higher-quality math learning, or they feel stressed if they get the teacher who is not seen in this light. The MWSA centers on cohesion and ensures all teachers within and across grades are on the same effective page. Schools can use the MWSA to make high quality mathematics learning commonplace in all classrooms and support teachers in becoming equally celebrated as capable and skilled.

What can schools expect when they align under an MWSA? We commonly see four key results that we can remember with the acronym C.A.R.E.

Communication: Language, notation, and representations are foundational in how we communicate and demonstrate our understandings of mathematical ideas. By presenting consistent and connected mathematical language, notation, and representations, we give students confidence that they can contribute to the community of mathematics learners. This alignment extends as well to teachers, administrators, and others in the school as they now speak the same language and have a shared understanding. Ultimately, this spreads to families and eases the communication among all stakeholders.

Agency: It’s important for both teachers and students to have mathematical agency—that is, a positive mathematical identity that is put into action in the classroom so their mathematical understanding is shaped in ways that are personally and socially meaningful (as described in Aguirre, Mayfield-Ingram, and Martin, 2013). Teacher agency is an essential foundation for the establishment of an MWSA—through collaboration, an MWSA assures everyone has a voice and is learning along the way, which helps to transform or enhance individual teachers’ mathematics identities. As an MWSA team works together, teachers build greater mathematical understanding and confidence in implementing a variety of strategies. With positive shifts in teacher identity, the classroom culture also shifts. Students begin to contribute in more meaningful ways, which in turn fosters their own positive mathematical identities.

Reasoning: The MWSA places reasoning and sense-making at its core. This is central to mathematics learning and impacts the types of tasks and questions teacher and students use in class, the way they structure discourse together, and the generalizations they co-develop. When reasoning and sense making guide mathematics teaching and learning, students spend less time learning (and then unlearning) ideas that limit their understanding—those pesky “rules that expire”—and can focus instead on learning that deepens their understanding.

Engagement: Mathematics is not a spectator sport. In order to learn mathematics, we have to do mathematics. This means that the tasks, the discourse, and all other aspects of the mathematics class have to be accessible for all students. They need an entry point into the mathematics content and the mathematical practices so that they can contribute to their own learning and to that of the collective class. The MWSA incorporates those equitable processes and practices that allow students to approach mathematical tasks with confidence; they feel powerful and curious to learn more.

The C.A.R.E. actions remind us of an important Corwin Connect post by Dr. Robert Berry about teachers as “warm demanders.” Being a warm demander requires us to build off students’ strengths, position them as capable, and humanize mathematics learning. Developing and adhering to an MWSA offers educators a transformative and rewarding avenue to becoming a team of warm demanders with C.A.R.E. as their mission.

Link to the Math Pact series of books from Corwin

Written by

Karen Karp, Sarah Bush, and Barbara Dougherty are lifelong mathematics educators who share a passion for deep, connected, and equitable mathematics instruction for all students. They are the authors of The Math Pact series, which describes a K-12 whole-school/whole-district approach to achieving instructional math coherence within and across grades. Each book focuses on guidance and examples at the elementary, middle, or high school levels. Get a taste of some of the instructional dos and don’ts for the elementary, middle school, and high school books today!


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