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Education Leaders Learn from "Bright Spot" Mathematics Classrooms in Utah

April 2021

Author: Pamela Fong, REL West

Teachers’ classrooms are treasure troves, rich with teaching practices that successfully advance student learning. But mining those promising practices and getting other teachers to adopt them is challenging—often requiring the support of a team of educators and researchers committed to carrying out the work.

In 2018, Utah legislators approved a new collaborative effort in research and innovation called Utah Leading through Effective, Actionable, and Dynamic Education, or ULEAD. The purpose of ULEAD is to support the spread of successful education practices, so that Utah practitioners can replicate them with the knowledge that the practices are aligned to Utah state standards. To accomplish this work, ULEAD partnered with the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) West. REL West staff collaborate with the ULEAD team to help to build the latter’s capacity to collect, gather, and analyze data; facilitate convenings to review data; and develop evidence-based resources for teachers.

Gathering teacher data about factors contributing to student success

In 2020, ULEAD led a team of education leaders from the Utah State Board of Education (USBE), University of Utah, and Utah State University, to begin collaboration on identifying promising practices in grades 3–6 mathematics instruction and understanding the conditions that support those practices. According to ULEAD Director McKell Withers, “Third through sixth grade math was chosen based on the available student performance data over time and as a natural follow-up to the 2019 focus on early literacy by the same core group of researchers committed to collaborative efforts to enhance student learning outcomes in the state.”

To gather information, REL West supported the ULEAD team in developing and administering a survey to 85 Utah teachers in grades 3 through 6, who were identified as positive outliers based on improving student test scores over five consecutive years on the state standardized math assessment. Teachers were asked to report on the types of mathematics instructional practices they employed in their classrooms and the systems of support at their school, such as grade-level professional learning communities.

Collectively, teachers who responded reported that the following practices and processes contributed to student success in mathematics:

  • Focusing on teaching the state standards
  • Applying a student-centered approach to teach specific skills and strategies
  • Implementing the same instructional processes and lesson sequences within a grade-level team
  • Using the same formative assessments within a grade-level team
  • Monitoring student progress to guide the use of interventions
  • Collaborating with other teachers—within grade level and across grade levels

ULEAD convenes a Teacher Summit

After consultations with REL West, the ULEAD team decided that further probing was needed to understand more about what teachers are actually doing that is associated with improved student math outcomes. What did these practices look like? How could these practices be described for other teachers to replicate? What conditions enabled these practices? The team invited the teachers who responded to the survey to a virtual working summit on November 10, 2020, where they could provide more details and context about their promising practices.

REL West supported the ULEAD team in co-designing the teacher summit with activities that enabled teachers to collaborate, built teachers’ knowledge about instructional practices, and allowed the ULEAD team to collect more information about these practices.

Twenty elementary school teachers from 11 Utah schools attended the summit representing grades 3 through 6. Education researchers and USBE staff also attended. Before the convening, the teachers were invited to post a comment and an artifact on a virtual bulletin board about a “bright spot” in their mathematics teaching. Here are some of their responses:

In addition to “aha” moments and seeing my students’ productive struggle, one of the bright spots in my math teaching is when my students feel confident enough to start teaching their peers. –4th grade teacher

  • A bright spot in my classroom is group work. I place a big emphasis on being able to work together, with anyone in our classroom, and learning to explain thinking, find misconceptions or mistakes, and share strategies. –6th grade teacher
  • My bright spot every year is introducing—and then watching students embrace—the concept of “pictures, words, and numbers.” So many come into class being able to do an algorithm without deeper understanding. Teaching students that each problem can tell a story and have a visual representation and can be written about and can be expressed with an equation or expression is powerful for them. –6th grade teacher
  • A bright spot in my mathematics classroom is engaging in a feedback loop with students regarding instructional practices. We talk often about goal setting, both for students, and for myself as their teacher. This feedback loop creates a positive classroom climate where growth, mistakes and learning are celebrated. –2nd/3rd grade teacher

During the convening, the teachers were asked to react to the survey findings and share their perspectives about what resonated with them or surprised them. In small grade-level groupings, teachers then engaged in a discussion protocol where they described and “excavated” a promising practice, before welcoming questions from their peers.

Reflecting on the event, USBE Elementary Mathematics Specialist Shannon Olson remarked on the positive energy the teachers brought to the convening, “It was exhilarating to hear the teachers sharing strategies and asking each other questions to hone their craft and to provide the best mathematics instruction possible for their students.”

Not only did the summit provide teachers with a professional opportunity to share their expertise, learn from peers, and receive recognition for their teaching, the summit also yielded what Withers calls “the beginning of a statewide network of practitioners interested in continuing to enhance their own skills while offering to support teachers across the state to improve the learning outcomes of their students in similar schools.”

Additionally, the ULEAD team advanced its capacity to collect and interpret data, design and facilitate a productive learning event, and develop useful resources for the field. In 2021, the team will host a second summit for math leaders and plans to produce an educator-friendly report profiling “bright spot” teacher teams and summarizing the learning generated from both events, as well as a “guiding vision” document for mathematics teaching and learning for the entire state.

Interested in learning more?

  • Visit the ULEAD Website
  • Download ULEAD’s Leadership for Literacy Report, which includes lessons learned from the Leadership for Literacy Summit held in July 2019, school profiles with summaries of instructional time and curricular resources, and related resources about evidence-based practice from REL West.