students in Los Angeles doing a math problem

Los Angeles: Bridging Student and Teacher Learning In Math


Written by Laura Troxel

Los Angeles: Bridging Student and Teacher Learning In Math

Math allows us to make sense of our world. When students see the power and joy in mathematics—not just the steps—they can use math knowledge and problem-solving skills to build the lives they dream about.

That’s why the Los Angeles Unified School District is taking on an ambitious three-year effort to give students in every classroom access to challenging instruction. LAUSD is partnering with Leading Educators and two other organizations through the Effective Implementation Cohort grant program to design professional learning for school-based instructional leaders. Recognizing partner schools’ contextual needs and diverse strengths, Leading Educators offered support strategies to three local districts during the 2021-2022 school year. 

In each local district, the Los Angeles team designed a sequence of curriculum-based professional learning sessions for educators tailored to priority areas for the school year. 

Building Equitable Instruction from a Quality Curriculum

LAUSD serves more than 565,000 students and is determined to educate L.A.’s youth, ensure academic achievement, and empower tomorrow’s leaders. In math, the district wants all students to identify as mathematicians and use their math knowledge and skills as tools for empowerment and liberation. 

But to reach these goals and overcome barriers to greater proficiency, leaders recognize they need to better support teachers in providing daily opportunities for all students to engage in mathematical discourse, sense-making, and meaningful problem-solving. The district’s chosen curriculum, Illustrative Mathematics (IM), takes a problem-based approach to math, which requires a shift in how teachers teach.

For example, educators across the district hope to see student-led classrooms where students feel confident sharing their ideas and debating their processes for applying mathematical concepts with peers. Leading Educators worked with leaders in LAUSD’s Division of Instruction along with leaders at the three local districts to design ongoing, school-based professional learning for teachers using the new materials. These efforts are part of a larger, coherent strategy for systemic improvement.

The professional development sessions were eye-opening for many participants. In one of the early sessions, participants were asked to reflect on their own relationship with math as a student, teacher, and leader. Afterward, one participant said  the session provided a “safe space to address my own math vulnerabilities and examine standards in a deep dive.”  

Lessons Learned 

One area of focus this year was how to address unfinished learning—concepts or skills that students were in the process of learning but unable to master or never had the opportunity to learn—within grade-level content. After working with content designed by Leading Educators coaches, one teacher said,

I used to think I had to address all unfinished learning before teaching a new topic. Now I think I can make better use of time by following guidance from the Unit Adaptation Pack, and implementing prior grade-level lessons while continuing grade level lessons.” 

  • By the spring of 2022, in local district Northeast and local district West, over 80% of classrooms observed were using IM materials; in local district Northwest, over 90% of classrooms were using them. 
  • Students are also eager to learn and rise to the challenge. In a survey, 4,800+ students self-reported that they want to see themselves as mathematicians and explore challenging mathematics. 
  • Teachers feel more confident using IM materials and are eager to continue supporting students through problem-solving and mathematical discussions. Classroom observations support this data and report that students are more engaged during lessons and willing to share their thoughts and ideas. 

Dr. Margaret Kim, Administrator of Instruction for the local district Northwest, said,

When I compare the schools with and without LE support there is a very noticeable difference in outcomes. The LE team is flexible in adjusting as needed to meet the needs of the schools. In addition, the LE team has shared ideas that are coherent, appropriate and always challenging instruction to improve.”

What Comes Next 

Over the 2022-2023 school year, district and school leaders want to continue to build upon the success they are seeing. Teacher leaders and teachers cited the complexity of the curriculum as a challenge in the first year, so in year 2 of the partnership, a continued focus on understanding IM design and structure is necessary. There are also plans to invite teachers to PL sessions. 

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