Designing Learning Organizations for Instructional Improvement in Mathematics

MIST is a five-year study of four large, urban districts implementing ambitious mathematics reform initiatives in the middle grades.  The study uses a mixed-methods research design to investigate how changes in the school and district settings in which mathematics teachers work influence their instructional practices, students' learning opportunities, and student achievement.  

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The research base on supporting mathematics teachers' development of ambitious instructional practices at scale is thin in both mathematics education and in policy and leadership.

Funding agencies including NSF have invested heavily in ambitious agendas for teacher professional development in mathematics. Prior large-scale improvement efforts that have attempted to penetrate the instructional core of the classroom have rarely produced lasting changes in teachers’ instructional practices (Elmore, 2004; Gamoran et al., 2003).

This project is designed to examine the institutional settings in which the classroom is situated (i.e. the district and school environment) with the goal of supporting teacher professional development and causing lasting change in instruction at the classroom level.

Prior NSF-funded initiatives made an important contribution by focusing on a singleaspect of the institutional settings in which mathematics teachers develop and revise their instructional practices: either 1) Principals’ knowledge of mathematics and their beliefs about mathematics teaching and learning; 2) The content, pedagogical, and diagnostic knowledge necessary for leaders to assist mathematics teachers effectively; or 3) Districts’ use of instructional guidance tools such as pacing guidelines and alignment charts.

Our primary goal in this project is to investigate, test, and refine a set of conjectures regarding the support structures needed to enhance the impact of professional development on mathematics teachers’ instructional practices and thus student achievement. In addressing this goal, we will take a comprehensive view of the institutional setting of mathematics teaching rather than focusing on a single aspect. 

The support structures on which we will focus include 1) Teacher learning communities and informal networks, 2) Shared vision for mathematics instruction (as indicated by use of a common language for talking about mathematics instruction, presence of brokers who can bridge perspectives, and compatible interpretations of key boundary objects such as instructional materials and state standards and assessments), 3) Distribution of instructional leadership across formal and informal leaders, 4) Reciprocal accountability between teachers and instructional leaders (as indicated by alignment of assistance and accountability and access to key resources such as coherent instructional guidance instruments), and 5) Depth of instructional leaders’ understanding of mathematics, the instructional program, and the challenges of using it effectively.

We will investigate our conjectures by employing a mixed methods design that involves both a formal hypothesis-testing component and design research component. We will work in four urban school districts over four years. The data we will collect or document includes: 1) The institutional setting of teaching (i.e., the above support structures), 2) Teachers’ instructional practices and content knowledge for teaching, 3) The professional development activities in which teachers participate, 4) Formal and informal leaders’ instructional leadership practices, and 5) Student achievement.

The overall product of the two components will be a framework for guiding, monitoring, and assessing school and district-wide institutional improvement in mathematics. This Institutional Improvement Framework will identify the support structures that our findings document are important, explain why they are important and under what conditions, clarify how they are interdependent, and illustrate how their development can be accomplished.

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