The Instructional Leader's Guide to Jumpstarting Math Instruction

Strong instructional leaders can add up to three additional months of learning for students every year. Build teacher capacity and increase student achievement with these math-focused actions.
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Last fall’s release of the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress test results weren’t completely unexpected—but jarring nonetheless. The results hit especially hard with regards to math performance, where national results showed the largest drop in math performance for both fourth and eighth grades since the program began in the early 1990s. 

Because of these data points, there’s been a lot of talk about ramping up academic support to recover and accelerate learning. While there’s no shortage of short-term fixes, it’s important to remember the truth: concentrating on the long game as an instructional leader is the best chance we have to ensure our students are growing and progressing. 

While there’s no shortage of short-term fixes, it’s important to remember the truth: concentrating on the long game is the best chance we have to ensure our students are growing and progressing. 

As a school leader, you—and your instructional leadership team—are the foundation of this recovery. The impact of an effective school leader is strong and broad, with research showing that strong instructional leaders can add up to three months of learning for students each year. 

Two of the most impactful ways you contribute to this growth is through the hiring and development of great teachers, as well as a steadfast commitment to creating the conditions for a positive school culture. Through these two actions, you’re building the long-term capacity that’s needed for our students—and schools—to reach new heights and retain the staff that will make that growth possible. 

This long view is why it’s critical for school leaders to be laser-focused on strong instructional leadership—a leadership style that’s primarily focused on supporting the development of teaching and learning and less on the managerial tasks of the principalship. It’s never been more important to “lead learning, and lead as a learner.”

Why instructional leadership matters

American educator and author Ronald Edmonds first began publishing research on instructional leadership in the 1970s. He found what has been most recently proven by the Wallace Foundation: that school leaders who focus on instruction in their conversations and actions had a deeper impact on student learning. Our research shows the same. 

Why Instructional Leadership Matters - New Leaders - Education Leadership Development

At New Leaders, we view instructional leadership as leadership that removes barriers to student success for the purpose of increasing student achievement, and we’ve identified three immediate and effective ways school leaders can practice this:

  • Building teacher capacity to deliver high-quality instruction,
  • Increasing the complexity of content being taught, as strong curriculum is both rigorous and reflects the high standards we believe our students can achieve, and 
  • Shifting student learning from passive to active to increase engagement and ownership of their learning.

Here’s what those actions might look like through the lens of math instruction. (And, if you're looking for an ELA guide too, check out part-two of this series.)

Building teacher capacity

Imagine collaborative meetings where teams of teachers are engaged in planning and reflecting on instruction, making curricular decisions, and analyzing student data—all because time has been provided consistently and protected by you as their school leader. Think about how teacher engagement would soar—and how student engagement would follow suit. This is what it might look like to focus on building teacher capacity. Here are a few ways school leaders can help their teacher teams deepen their knowledge:

  • Make time for collaborative planning. Teachers work best when they’re able to tap into a group of peers who can offer a different perspective on what’s being taught and help them dig deeper into who they are as both teachers and learners. This kind of regular collaboration also builds instructional coherence across classrooms and grade levels. 
  • Encourage multiple ways of problem-solving. Often, there’s more than one way to solve a math problem. Inspiring teachers to see all the ways a student might arrive at a particular answer can help them understand what a student will need to know before tackling a specific math problem or sequence.
  • Emphasize equity and efficacy. Far too many students don’t think of themselves as “math people,” and often, this thinking is rooted in inequitable practices. School leaders can partner with teachers to re-examine some of those practices—such as tracking and inflexible grouping—so that all students can excel in math.
  • Ensure culturally responsive teaching. Any learning—including math—needs to be rooted in a student’s culture, language, and lived experience. Giving teachers the autonomy to embed culturally-responsive critical thinking into their existing curriculum improves authentic connections for learners and deepens learning outcomes.

Increasing content complexity

A strong curriculum is one that’s rigorous, accessible, and as we mentioned above, culturally relevant—and this is especially true for math instruction and instructional materials. Students who are culturally grounded are often deeply connected to the communities they live in, so why not bring those community connections into math lessons

This might look like teachers having younger students look at photographs of the buildings in their neighborhoods—grocery stores, apartment buildings, and other businesses—to assign the meaning of numbers to the places around them. And older students calculating perimeter and area. Or, it could mean connecting math strategies to rhythm and music, like salsa dancing or hip-hop. In addition, here are a few additional lenses to look through when thinking through effective content:

  • Prioritize equity and accessibility. All students deserve consistent opportunities to work with rigorous grade-level math problems that are also absent from any gender or cultural stereotypes. 
  • Focus on priority standards. Content that’s aligned with the major work of a particular grade means that teachers are able to spend more instructional time going deeper into the learning that matters, instead of concentrating on curriculum that’s “mile-wide, inch-deep.” 
  • Link math learning across grade levels. Math content is best absorbed when it’s able to continually build on prior knowledge. Students are able to make lasting connections to new learning by utilizing what they’ve learned previously. 
  • Offer a high level of rigor. Effective math content needs to focus equally on developing contextual understanding, skill and fluency with math procedures, and application to new contexts. In addition, assessments and feedback will help make sure students are being challenged in the ways that are appropriate for them. 

Shifting students from passive to active learning

Active learning changes the role students play in the classroom. Instead of passively consuming information or demonstrating recall of math sequences and procedures, active learning encourages critical thinking or curiosity about what’s being taught. 

This agency might look like students becoming more involved in their learning, including how it’s delivered and the assessment of their progress—like this school that employs student-led conferences to share what they’re most proud of and what they find most challenging as learners. When school leaders give students permission to voice their opinions in school-wide morning meetings or advisory blocks, for example, adult-student relationships flourish and contribute to an engaged learning environment. Here are some ways to consider this shift:

  • Creating accountability: When students are given tasks worthy of solving, they’re more able to see themselves as problem solvers. That mindset shift creates a feeling of ownership and responsibility—much more than solving the same problems over and over on a worksheet.
  • Encourage perseverance and curiosity. In wrestling with a math problem or complex concept, students learn to expand their conceptual understanding, apply what they’re learning to other contexts, and develop flexibility in using tools and models. They also are more likely to “go beyond the answer”—using the math they’ve learned to solve problems in everyday life.
  • Focus on effective communication. “Math talk”—what the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) defines as “the ways of representing, thinking, talking, and agreement/disagreement that teachers and students use to engage in mathematical tasks”—is essential for math learning. Just like with any other subject, students need to be able to ask questions, articulate their learning moves, and clarify their ideas in order to develop the thinking and explanation skills required to master math concepts. 

Make time for action—and look for the evidence of success

As you work to accelerate math learning in your school, it will be important to make time for the actions that will put you in an instructional leadership mindset: observing classroom instruction, giving meaningful feedback, and participating in teacher meetings. These measures help you facilitate greater instructional coherence across your school—and then sustain it.

Looking for evidence of meaningful content, effective instructional practices, and active student engagement is critically important.

Looking for evidence of meaningful content, effective instructional practices, and active student engagement is critically important. Keeping track of teacher wins and seeing their growth makes it that much easier to keep flexing your instructional leadership muscles. If you need a system to capture key “look-fors,” download our full “Accelerate & Activate” Math Toolkit. It has a place to write down your observations. 

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We can partner with you to strengthen your instructional leadership.

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