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A District Is Making a Huge Bet on One Math Curriculum to Improve Achievement

New York City is gearing up to change the way math is taught this school year amid rising concerns about students’ low math performance.

The initiative, NYC Solves, will mandate the use of one standardized curriculum across all high schools and many middle schools in the city. This fall, 420 high schools and 93 middle schools across eight of the system’s geographic districts will be using Illustrative Mathematics as their go-to math curriculum. Other middle schools will be given a curated set of curricula created by three companies—i-Ready, Amplify, and Illustrative Mathematics—to choose from.

“Schools all over the city were just doing their own thing. Creating their own curriculum on math,” said schools Chancellor David Banks at a press conference to announce the new initiative on Monday. “That’s no way to run a system. You can’t spend this amount of money and still get poor results.”

Over the next five years, officials stated, the city will spend $34 million on NYC Solves.

NYC Solves is modeled after NYC Reads, the city’s initiative to raise reading proficiency levels for pre-K and elementary students. It will follow a similar blueprint: a curated list of “research based” and “high quality” curricula for schools to choose from, coupled with “intensive” training and coaching for teachers.

The Illustrative Mathematics curriculum emphasizes a conceptual understanding of math, instead of rote memorization. The curriculum also offers more options for bilingual and below-grade learners to improve their math proficiency because it connects problems to real-life experiences and takes into account learners’ previous knowledge about the subject, according to a city press release.

An investigation by Chalkbeat found, though, that the city’s educators were divided on their feedback about IM during a pilot run of the curriculum across 260 schools in 2023. Some of the teachers reported that the curriculum is too fast-paced for them to check on students’ understanding of the material.

However, the city believes that the curriculum, coupled with training, is essential to tackle the city’s math proficiency crisis, which—as in other places across the country— worsened during the pandemic. Scores from the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress indicated that only 52 percent of the 8th grade students in the city met the “basic” achievement level in math, with even lower scores for Black and Hispanic students.

“We see NYC Solves clearly as a response from the city leadership that they’ve heard the voices of educators and parents calling for high-quality math instruction,” said Marielys Divanne, the executive director of the New York chapter of Educators For Excellence, a national nonprofit that advocates for more teacher representation in education policy. E4E made three recommendations to the city to address its math achievement crisis, some of which NYC Solves incorporates.

As the program rolls out, Divanne hopes that a substantial part of the $34 million allocated will go toward professional development. The curriculum alone isn’t sufficient, she said. “There has to be a plan to give teachers ongoing support.”

Education Week spoke with Divanne about how E4E’s recommendations have been incorporated in the city’s initiative, the need for support for teachers, and the potential for more teacher voice in curriculum decisions.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Which E4E recommendations were taken up by NYC Solves? What still needs to be done?

The focus on middle school and addressing the needs of students before they reach high school. The city has narrowed the three options [for curricula] to those that are vetted for quality [which can] improve consistency from school to school.

In the city, if a child moves from one school to another, we want there to be consistency in terms of the high-quality curriculum, which gives them the opportunity to continue to learn, versus an interruption in their learning. The city is making the multi-year commitment to invest in professional learning to build the capacity of our educators to make these curricular shifts.

We want to make sure that they continue to narrow the set of curricular options to the ones that are high-quality. And that has to be through deep engagement and feedback from educators.

The city should make investments in three to five years of aligned professional learning, comparable to NYC Reads. We also need to continue to dismantle the stereotypes and biases that historically excluded many students, especially students of color, from seeing themselves as capable in math.

The city must ensure that there’s a robust engagement plan for families and caregivers and community organizations who can support the transition to higher-quality math curriculum. What are the tools that a parent can use at home? How are we talking to parents? To community members? To tutoring programs?

There is an opportunity to have a fully aligned plan from the city for NYC Solves, the way that they have shaped NYC Reads.

What led the city to choose this curriculum? And how does that work for such a large school system?

We’re not taking sides on the curriculum.

But what is key, and what we did not get yet, is that educators need to be engaged in the curriculum selection process for their school. The city has said publicly that the eight districts that have already selected IM engaged their teachers and community to select their curriculum. We want to see that continue [in the rollout]. We also will make sure to provide the feedback from math educators that are currently implementing IM [to the city] because we think it’s essential that their voice continues to shape NYC Solves in the future.

The city has mentioned a list of curricula. My understanding is that the list can be expanded and tweaked. Teachers need to be at the table and look at what’s being considered.

This also means that constant feedback [about IM] from educators is essential to meet the needs of our school communities. Our plan is to gather feedback this summer and at pivotal points during the school year and make that feedback public through reports. We will create opportunities for direct feedback from educators to the city on using these selected curricula.

What challenges do teachers face when they implement a new curriculum?

They have told us that they need curriculum-focused coaching and opportunities to be coached within their classroom environments. They want to learn from their peers on how they approach the curriculum. Literacy and math coaches appreciate opportunities to work across schools [with teachers] in the district to strengthen their practice.

Teachers don’t want a drop-by, drop-in approach to the coaching. They want consistent coaching that’s aligned to the curriculum and based on their own individual practice and experience in the classroom. This becomes even more important when a new curriculum is introduced. Teachers shouldn’t feel like they’re implementing this in isolation.

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