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California Mathematics Project: A Case Study on Adapting & Expanding a Practice Across the State

Background

The California Mathematics Project (CMP) is a network focused on developing and enhancing K-12 teachers’ content knowledge and instructional strategies. When the organization began in 1982, it focused on providing a summer leadership institute for teachers. Today, the network has expanded to 19 regional sites and supports teachers in deepening math and pedagogical knowledge that aligns with the California Department of Education’s mathematics standards and framework. 


For a few years, CMP has been supporting schools to adopt a practice called “lesson study” – a collaborative method for helping teachers develop effective lesson plans. The organization joined the community of practice with the goal of expanding the practice of lesson study across the state. In line with the community of practice’s efforts to mobilize knowledge across the field, CMP sees lesson study as a powerful method for adapting and expanding instructional approaches across the state that will yield better outcomes for students.


Developing & Evolving Lesson Study

How Lesson Study Works

CMP began with a model for lesson study that was developed by Catherine Lewis and Ineko Tsuchida. Lesson study brings together a set of teachers to create and deliver lessons. “Nothing is more credible for a teacher than another teacher,” said Kyndall Brown, executive director of CMP. 


The process includes four phases: 

  1. Study: In this phase, a group of teachers work to understand a challenge they want to address. For example, a set of students might be struggling with fractions. In the study phase, the teachers look at their existing curriculum around fractions, the state standards around teaching fractions, field research on teaching fractions, and other relevant resources. 

  2. Plan: The group of teachers gather together and use what they’ve learned to plan a lesson. 

  3. Test: One teacher from the group teaches the lesson to students while the other teachers observe alongside a math commentator (someone with math expertise who CMP invites to give feedback to the group of teachers). 

  4. Reflect: After the lesson, the teachers and the math commentator gather to reflect on the experience. The commentator gives feedback on the lesson. At this point, the teachers can redesign the lesson or move forward with the lesson as-is. 


Once this process is complete, the teachers return to their classroom with new methods, tools, and a lesson plan that they can each use and also share with other teachers at their school. 


How the Practice Evolved

In recent years, CMP launched the California Action Network for Mathematics Excellence and Equity (CANMEE), a collaboration with state and national groups focused on excellence and equity in mathematics education. CANMEE saw a need to increase accessibility and equity in math education. The group saw an opportunity to do so through lesson study. 


CANMEE realized that in addition to a math commentator, lesson study would benefit from an equity commentator – someone with deep experience in equitable practice who could observe and give feedback on the lesson. The group also looked to work at Sonoma State University for inspiration: Sonoma State had long used the idea of “focal students” – developing a lesson around a specific set of students. 


To adopt these ideas, CANMEE revised the lesson study process: 

  1. Study: During the study phase, teachers identify 3-4 focal students around whom they wanted to design the lesson. They conduct empathy interviews with those students to understand their strengths and challenges related to the subject. They set an equity goal for each lesson. They write asset-based descriptions of the students in order to hold a fuller picture of them beyond their difficulty with the subject matter. And in addition to the other research they conduct, they also do research around the students’ needs. For example, if one of the students is an English language learner, they might research strategies for teaching effectively with English language learners. A facilitator is present to guide the process and support the teachers. 

  2. Plan: The teachers develop the lesson plan specifically for the 3-4 focal students. 

  3. Test: The teacher teaches the lesson to a group of students that includes the 3-4 focal students. In addition to the math commentator, an equity commentator observes the lesson. Their role is to pay attention to the focal students and how they react throughout the lesson.

  4. Reflect: The equity commentator joins the teachers and math commentator to give feedback and reflect on the lesson.


This approach often leads to strong outcomes for students. “We’ve seen this miraculous change in the focal students,” Kyndall said. “Something about being interviewed by the teacher and then having the teacher create a lesson to meet their needs has helped the focal students blossom.” This may be a result of the attention and care these students experience in the process, or it might be because the teacher is taking a new, more effective approach to teaching. 


Teachers benefit from the practice, too. “Teachers find this to be some of the most valuable professional learning they can do, because they’re driving it,” Kyndall said. “It’s not an outside expert coming in and saying ‘Here’s what to do.’”


Getting Administrators to Understand the Value

As CMP looks to expand lesson study into new schools and districts across California, it needs buy-in from administrators. 


It can be hard to convince administrators to allow lesson study in their schools. Lesson study requires time (often about 40 hours) and can also require space (if lessons are offered publicly to the community) and money (if teachers are paid for the time they spend on this). Some teachers and administrators feel that it’s too much to dedicate to a single lesson plan, though CMP knows that teachers walk away with tools, tactics, and insights that apply beyond a single lesson to their teaching more broadly.


Through the community of practice, CMP interviewed administrators who support lesson study at their schools to understand why. Those administrators shared several reasons: They like that it’s school-based and teacher-centered. They see lesson study as a way to use teachers’ professional learning time productively. They see it as a way to build teachers’ leadership at the school. Administrators can also use it to train new teachers and test out new curriculum. 


“It checks off a lot of boxes for administrators and teachers,” Kyndall said. “And we’ve found that once administrators see it, they see its value. Administrators who see the growth in teachers and students become some of our biggest advocates.” 


The community-of-practice members proved invaluable in helping CMP make the case. Since three participating organizations work with principals and administrators – Black Principals Network, the Association of Latino Administrators and Superintendents, and the National Association of Elementary School Principals – CMP was able to get their feedback on how they might approach new schools and messages that might be most effective with administrators. 


Next Steps

CMP has plans to test new messaging to make the case for lesson study with administrators. It also plans to continue spreading lesson study through a variety of methods: training facilitators who can facilitate lesson study teams, training math and equity commentators, hosting virtual lesson study symposiums, and spreading the word at their annual convening, their lesson study institute, website, social media, and networks they’re part of. They’ve established “lesson study hubs” in three regions in California and will continue building capacity in those regions for teachers to engage in and facilitate lesson study. 


Recently, the California Department of Education released a new math framework for the state. In it, lesson study is described as an effective form of professional learning and CMP’s work is featured in a vignette. This has provided another opportunity for CMP to make the case for lesson study. Kyndall said, “As we roll out the new framework, how do we raise up lesson study as a strategy for implementing the framework?”


Paths Forward: Key Considerations and Advice

CMP’s experience offers some ideas for organizations looking to expand a practice across a region:

  • Make a plan. Early on, CMP developed a detailed plan of how to expand lesson study across the state. Even if things don’t unfold as you planned, it can help you get concrete and map out where you want to go next. 

  • Think about the audiences you want to influence. Many teachers see the value of lesson study, but CMP realized through the community of practice that administrators needed to see the value too. And they realized the best way to make the case to administrators was to go to the source. Interviewing administrators – both those who support lesson study and those who don’t – could help them figure out how to make the case to administrators across the state. 

  • Center the people you seek to serve. The lesson study process became more effective when CMP incorporated the idea of focal students. Putting students at the center helped them ensure lessons were best serving them. 


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