Taking Mathematics Research from Hundreds of Students to Hundreds of Schools

by Mary Kay Stein

The success of research on mathematics instructional tasks conducted by Margaret “Peg” Smith, myself, and others over the last 25 years at the School of Education led us to wonder about the feasibility of researching these same topics at a much larger scale. What could we learn about how well challenging instruction predicts student achievement across hundreds of schools? What could we determine about the school, district, and even statewide conditions that are necessary to support teachers as they learn how to teach in more cognitively demanding ways? To address these questions we have been engaged in three specific projects.
PROJECT 1: Scaling Up Mathematics
One of our first large-scale research projects was a five-year study of two large urban school districts that had just adopted new, cognitively challenging curricula. In addition to studying districts—as compared with the classrooms researched in Smith’s article—this project differed from earlier work in two important ways. First, we not only examined the instructional tasks used by teachers in their classrooms, but also the ways in which district- and school-level policies shaped how teachers used those tasks in their classrooms.
For example, did principals’ provision of professional development help teachers carry out tasks in ways that supported students’ thinking and reasoning? Or did policies, such as assessments that focused on low-level skills, lead teachers to reduce the cognitive demands of curricular tasks by teaching procedures or “taking over the thinking” for the students? Second, we began to examine student achievement outcomes more systematically.
Findings from this project include:
  • When teachers collaborated with each other, they were more likely to faithfully implement high- cognitive demand tasks in their classrooms over time.
  • District policies affected the nature and quality of teachers’ collaborations with each other.
  • Teachers who paid attention to particular features in the curricula’s teacher guides were best able to maintain high levels of cognitive demand. These features identified what mathematical ideas curricular tasks were designed to help students learn and previewed for teachers the challenges students might have in accomplishing the tasks.
With this research, we felt that we were starting to get a handle on district- and school-level factors that shape how teachers implement challenging tasks. With the advent of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) Initiative, it became natural to wonder about the capacity of states to take on a supportive role in helping teachers to successfully enact high-level tasks.
PROJECT 2: States as Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics Learning Environments
In summer 2013, the Institute for Learning (IFL), an outreach program of Pitt’s Learning and Research Development Center, had begun working with the entire state of Tennessee. IFL had trained more than 200 mathematics coaches who, in turn, had trained thousands of teachers. Through IFL, my School of Education colleagues—faculty members Jennifer Lin Russell and Richard Correnti—met with state leaders. We were impressed to find that these leaders shared our vision of high-quality mathematics instruction and were interested in the kind of support needed to improve teaching. Tennessee leaders also had invested heavily in performance-based student assessments aligned with CCSS in anticipation of students’ having to demonstrate learning in new ways and teachers’ having to align their teaching to more ambitious learning goals. Within six months, we were funded by the National Science Foundation to study the quality of teachers’ mathematics instructional practice as well as teachers’ access to collaborations with other educators.
This work is extending the research on mathematical instructional tasks to a statewide level by:
  • creating new ways of systematically measuring mathematics instruction across hundreds of classroom lessons;
  • creating new ways of measuring who teachers interact with, what they interact about, and what level of depth is present in these interactions (e.g., do teachers talk about sharing materials or do they talk about mathematical ideas and how students learn them?); and
  • examining how instruction and teachers’ collaborations with each other relate to student learning as measured by standardized tests and by more ambitious student assessments.
PROJECT 3: Coaching to Improve Common-core Aligned Mathematics Instruction in Tennessee
Most recently, we entered into a collaborative partnership with both IFL and the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) to help each entity refine the model that they use to train coaches. Together with IFL and state leaders, we will take a Continuous Improvement (CI) approach that consists of multiple cycles of coach implementation of the model, data collection on its impact, and then refinement of specific features of the model.
What distinguishes this work is the fact that all partners—TDOE, IFL leaders, and Pitt researchers—are named as coinvestigators and have the resources to carry out their part of the project. Another key feature is the complementarity of what each partner has to offer.
  • TDOE brings genuine questions and early insights regarding what might work and where challenges lie.
  • IFL offers years of training experience, including a well-developed research-based, content-focused coaching model that will provide the starting intervention from which we will grow and improve.
  • Finally, my research colleagues and I offer knowledge of the CI methodology, expertise from our prior research on mathematics instructional tasks, and capacity for conducting research that will test the efficacy of the new coaching model through a pilot study in the third year.
Over time, our hope—across all of these projects—is to use insights developed through research to have an impact on the instructional practices used in mathematics classrooms across the country. Better teaching toward more ambitious mathematical goals, in turn, should lead to students who are well prepared for college and careers.
For additional information, please see the following:
Coburn, C.E., and Russell, J.L., “District Policy and Teachers’ Social Networks,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 30(3): 203–35, 2008.
Coburn, C.E., Russell, J., Kaufman, K., and Stein, M.K., “Supporting Sustainability: Teachers’ Advice Networks and Ambitious Instructional Reform,” American Journal of Education, 119(1): 137–82, 2012.
Stein, M.K., and Kaufman, J.H., “Selecting and Supporting the Use of Mathematics Curricula at Scale,” American Educational Research Journal, 47(3): 663–93, 2010.