Warner Center Works with City School Math Coaches to Enhance Mathematics Instruction

Professional Development Program Teaches Math Coaches How to Support Teachers

Across the country, school districts are striving to provide high quality mathematics education programs for all students to better prepare them for citizenship in a complex world and employment in the rapidly evolving job market. The need to be able to solve novel, complex, and messy problems, coupled with new research on how people learn, demands that teaching in today’s classroom looks different from the instruction most adults received during their own school years.

To help meet this need, school districts across the country are beginning to turn to mathematics coaches for teacher support. These mathematics coaches, who are employed by school districts and who have a strong background in mathematics content and the teaching and learning of mathematics, assist teachers inside their own classrooms as they strive to improve their mathematics program. "Typically teachers only receive feedback about their instructional practice through observations made by administrators as part of a formal evaluation process,” explains Cindy Callard, director of mathematics outreach in the Warner Center for Professional Development and Education Reform. “A coaching model allows teachers and coaches to work collaboratively to focus on what students are learning and to support all students’ learning of important mathematics.”

The coaching model used in the Rochester City School District (RCSD) connects a mathematics teacher with a coach to work on ideas and strategies for probing to deeper levels of mathematics and keeping students engaged. Together, they build lesson plans, predict student responses, develop assessments, teach lessons, create resources and visuals that help illuminate student thinking, and debrief and identify areas for improvement as well as next steps.

Instructional coaching has shown significant results in mathematics instruction, particularly among high-needs schools. While mathematics coaches generally do not work directly with students, research is beginning to show that they are a key factor in supporting the improvement of teaching and learning in the classroom. Mathematics coaches, who have the potential to significantly improve instruction by giving teachers real-time, side-by-side feedback, advice, and support, have become an integral ingredient to both teacher success and the success of their students.

Entering the “private space” of a teacher’s classroom can be challenging for both the teacher and coach, and as a result a cadre of mathematics coaches in the RCSD has been working to develop effective strategies for making this collaboration smoother. The Warner Center for Professional Development and Education Reform at the University of Rochester’s Warner School of Education just completed a two-year professional development program that provided support to over 40 K-12 mathematics coaches to work with teachers to enhance mathematics instruction in their own classrooms. Funded by a New York State Education Department (NYSED) Teacher/Leader Quality Partnership (TLQP) grant, the program was specifically designed to help mathematics coaches develop coaching practices that will support teachers as they work to deepen the mathematics taught to children.

Lucy West, a national consultant on content-focused coaching in mathematics, helped to support this work by modeling the process of coaching and co-teaching lessons with teachers in Clara Barton School No. 2 and Thomas Jefferson High School during the 2008-09 school year. As part of the professional development, West worked alongside Callard and Mary Bellini, the mathematics outreach coordinator in the Warner Center, to provide a rich learning experience for RCSD mathematics coaches.

Stephen Montgomery and Shonna Woodmarcy, both teachers at Thomas Jefferson High School who opened their classrooms to West and other mathematics coaches in the district as part of the professional development experience, felt that they have benefited from the coaching model. They believe that the training helped them to establish an important relationship with the mathematics coach in their building and to expand on the mathematics that they teach.

“The professional development support has motivated us to push for more depth in the concepts that we teach,” says Montgomery as he summarizes how the training influenced him to alter his lesson plan on quadratic functions to involve students designing a room with a fixed perimeter to better understand the topic. “Our lessons have become more about the concept of the topic rather than the procedure. We learned how we can deepen the levels of the mathematics we teach by effectively planning and analyzing our lessons with our coach.”

Woodmarcy adds, “We have also seen increased communication on both ends as a result of the professional development, which has really helped us to develop our ideas to new levels. We have actually noticed that using these methods to deepen math concepts has resulted in gains for some of our students, especially those who have previously struggled with math.”

Mathematics can be thought of as a number-crunching process, but it’s so much more than that. Montgomery explains that it’s reasoning skills, problem solving, and verifying if something makes sense.

“These math skills are essential for success in future careers. If we deepen mathematics understanding then we will help to develop these skills in our students and they can then become independent thinkers and successful in anything they set out to do in the future,” he adds.

Tags: Center for Professional Development and Education Reform, Cindy Callard, mathematics, mathematics education