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Is a New Math Curriculum Your Golden Ticket to Improved Student Outcomes?

Student test scores are flat or down and you’ve been hired as a change agent who is expected to improve this narrative. Adopting a new math curriculum seems a likely answer and one which you feel will get the backing of frustrated teachers and an eager school board. While expensive and time-consuming, the positive student achievement results you envision would surely justify the expense, the time, and your employment in the district.

But will a different curricular materials really increase student achievement in mathematics?

The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child." --Carl Jung

The answer to that question greatly depends on how you decide the math program to be replaced is the problem in the first place.

Perhaps you fall into one of these common scenarios:

-You take teachers’ concerns seriously. The general consensus among teachers is that the current math units are too easy/too hard for students, too time-consuming to prepare, too light on home support, too disjointed, or whatnot. Respecting the insights of teachers, you decide to heed their requests for new materials.

- Parents are outraged that a nearby comparable school district has a higher performance rating from the state than the local school district has. You conclude that the neighboring district's curricular programs must be adopted.

-A member of the school board sends you an article or forwards you someone’s impassioned Facebook post about some negative aspect of the current math program. You follow up by reading other unflattering reviews about it and make the recommendation to adopt a less controversial program.

While pressures from teachers, parents, and school board members are real, none of the scenarios alone justifies throwing out the old curriculum. Before you go through the long, arduous, and expensive process of adopting a new math program, be sure you can conclude that the current program your district uses is actually the problem.

Determine if Your Current Math Program Contributes to Poor Performance

The most informative piece of information comes not from test scores, but from the curricular materials themselves. So, conduct a curriculum mapping exercise across the grade levels. Your committee of stakeholders (including teachers) must determine whether or not the current units of study adequately cover your state’s math content standards and are written to engage students in the Standards for Mathematical Practice or Process Standards. Here's a tip: If your districts provides only standards documents to teachers and calls that the math “curriculum,” seriously consider adopting a research-based, published math program so teachers can focus on teaching, not curriculum development.

If the standards - both for math content and for math practice - are not covered, then it makes sense that a new math program is warranted. Students can’t learn what teachers don’t teach! For any district, the adoption of a new math program might not completely solve the issue of low student performance, but at least you’ll be able to rule out unaligned mathematics curricular materials as a factor and to begin to focus on deeper issues.

If the current math program does satisfy the standards, adopting a new program isn’t likely to solve your problems. In this case, you really need to dig further by collecting and investigating system, teacher, and individual student data to uncover student needs that are not being met in the current environment.

Look for Other Culprits of Low Math Performance

Before making big decisions around curriculum replacement, professional learning programs, and other comprehensive plans meant to improve student learning outcomes, it’s important to uncover the reasons for underachievement in the first place.

Misalignment of System Practices

System practices around factors such as time allotted to math instruction or availability of curricular materials could be the culprit. Finding out that the amount of time your current published math program recommends for each lesson is far greater than what your district schedule allows could mean that schedule adjustments, not curricular changes, are warranted. Similarly, if it is discovered that hands-on manipulatives were not provided to special education or EL teachers, adopting a new curriculum but continuing to follow the district modus operandi of sparing the expense to fully outfit specialized classrooms would likely yield similar poor results. On the other hand, if you advocate for purchasing those materials required of the current math program, the teaching and learning of mathematics for those populations of students could improve rather immediately.

Ineffective Teaching Practices

Teacher concerns about curricular issues are important to take seriously and to further investigate. Collect and analyze data on the implementation of the curricular materials and teaching practices in your classrooms. Are lessons being taught as intended by the authors? If not, why not? Are students expected to engage in productive struggle or are teachers quick to provide students with answers and procedures that rob students of sense-making opportunities? Authentic data from classroom observations and teacher interviews will provide the most insightful information, but some approximation data from anonymous teacher surveys about program implementation and their own teaching practices in relation to the curricular materials might suffice. You may find that instead of providing training for a whole new program, teachers would benefit from learning to more effectively use the materials with which they are already familiar. Developing a professional learning program focused on research-based effective teacher practices, methods of engaging students in the Standards for Mathematical Practice, or math content that teachers themselves have not mastered may be a worthwhile endeavor that enhances the implementation of the current mathematics curricular materials and leads to improved student outcomes.

Hidden Student Characteristics

Student data beyond the high-stakes assessment data disaggregated by gender, race, and SES of students not performing as expected could also reveal student needs. Is there a commonality among these students in terms of poor attendance or tardiness, negative student behaviors, unemployment of a parent, limited time in the district compared to other students, a language other than English spoken at home, or another factor that may affect student performance? The intervention for such students probably goes beyond what any math curriculum - new or old - could do for them and would more likely address their needs.

It’s easy to blame curricular materials for poor student performance because the materials don’t require questioning internal practices, jeopardizing teacher goodwill, or bringing to light inconvenient student needs. Going through a lengthy curriculum adoption process expecting that a new math curriculum is the golden ticket to improvement, however, won’t make the real factors contributing to poor student outcomes go away. In fact, the adoption process could be a years-long distraction from uncovering and addressing the real culprits. Your current students don't have that kind of time.

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