Scaling elementary math success in Nebraska
In 2020, Lyons-Decatur Northeast Elementary adopted a high-quality math curriculum, Eureka Math®, but the lasting impact of disrupted schooling combined with the introduction of a new curriculum led to implementation challenges and a dip in student scores. When the principal reached out to the district’s regional service center for support, the center engaged Instruction Partners to help build leaders’ capacity to provide the support teachers needed to implement the new materials. As a result, the school’s state assessment scores in math rose from an average of 35% proficiency in 2020–21 to an average of 67% proficiency in 2021–22.
Regional centers are critical elements of the PK–12 ecosystem, providing resources and support to groups of neighboring districts. These centers have a unique view into what’s working within and across the local education agencies (LEAs) and can share insights, content-area expertise, and professional learning opportunities throughout their cohorts.
Because of their positioning, regional centers are also a powerful lever for driving and scaling instructional improvement. Instruction Partners works closely with regional staff developers to build their capacity to provide deep LEA support, including
- implementing content-specific models for continuous improvement alongside regional leaders,
- adding new service lines to their LEA support offerings, and
- carrying out state-driven improvement initiatives.
This is the story of how one regional center collaborated with Instruction Partners to give teachers and leaders the support they needed to turn great materials into great instruction.
Launching high-quality PL for scalable success
Nebraska school districts statewide are in the process of adopting new, high-quality instructional materials (HQIM) for K–12 math. To support successful implementation at scale, the Nebraska Department of Education (NDE) launched the Math Acceleration Project, a multiyear capacity-building endeavor that aims to create sustainable positive change and inform NDE’s decisions about future policies, guidance, practices, and support.
The project was built to bolster the state’s regional centers—called Educational Service Units (ESUs)—as they collaborated with school and district leaders to build capacity to implement HQIM effectively and support mathematics instruction. NDE engaged Instruction Partners to support the effort, teaming up with ESUs to offer individualized engagements that developed leaders’ capacity to provide deep, lasting, replicable support to districts adopting and implementing HQIM.
Applying a gradual release model of support, Instruction Partners’ multiyear engagement with Nebraska’s ESUs comprised several layers:
- Instruction Partners works alongside ESU leads to engage in cycles of improvement with districts. →
- ESU leads take what they have learned to provide support to district leaders. →
- School instructional leaders set up structures and routines to support teachers to implement new HQIM. →
- Teachers support students with great instruction.
This process aligned to NDE’s goal of supporting widespread use of HQIM as well as Instruction Partners’ goal of scaling equitable access to great instruction. This alignment signaled that both organizations were ready to row in the same direction, a critical factor in catalyzing coherent change and growth at scale.
The unique challenges of implementing HQIM
Nebraska’s ESU #2 serves 16 districts west of the Omaha metro area. As the 2020–21 school year was coming to an end, ESU #2’s math specialist Dr. Kelly Georgius received a call from Brenda Totten, the principal at Lyons-Decatur Northeast Elementary. The school was wrapping up its first year with Eureka Math®, and Principal Totten had known there would be challenges inherent to the implementation.
“Eureka was completely different from what we had been doing in the past, and some of the teachers had deeper math knowledge than others,” she says. “Between the lasting impact of disrupted schooling and the fact that we were in our first year of implementing a new high-quality math curriculum, we knew our student scores would dip.”
After reviewing end-of-year results, Principal Totten wanted to be sure that her teachers had all the support they needed going into 2021–22. As Dr. Georgius recalls, “Principal Totten said ‘Hey, we just got Eureka. But we’re kind of struggling with it. Can you help?’”
Dr. Georgius was eager to focus on math instruction and standards, particularly how to help school leaders improve the feedback they give to teachers so that instruction improves. “My job is pretty siloed,” says Dr. Georgius, the only math specialist at the ESU. “When I learned that the state was offering ESUs the opportunity to work with Instruction Partners on a project that would help with math instruction, I jumped in and said ‘yes’!”
Aligning around a shared vision for instruction
Instruction Partners worked with Dr. Georgius and Principal Totten to observe instruction, create action plans for instructional improvement, and monitor progress to ensure that teachers had the support and resources they needed to get the most out of their new HQIM.
After the initial round of walkthroughs using Instruction Partners’ math classroom observation tool as a gauge to measure instructional quality and anchor improvement discussions, leaders noted that, though teachers were using the new curriculum, it wasn’t clear that they had a deep understanding of the most critical elements in the materials. Dr. Georgius worked with the Instruction Partners team to create an action plan for improvement, beginning with getting clear on how the math curriculum should look in the classroom.
“If you teach everything, you could spend four hours a day just teaching math, but we only have 90 minutes,” says Dr. Georgius. “We needed to operate from the standpoint of where we wanted our kids to be, then zero in on the most important pieces that would help them get there.”
Instruction Partners introduced leaders to a vision-setting process that helps leaders and teachers align around what math instruction should be like for students, using resources from their Curriculum Support Guide to ensure the vision is clear, practical, and actionable.
“I typically stay away from visioning because it feels fluffy,” says Dr. Georgius. “You put it on a poster and hang it up in your room, but it doesn’t do anything. But, part of doing this vision work was about having a practical conversation about what we want and what we believe; then saying, ‘okay, if this is what we want, then what should we see in classrooms?’; then committing to taking the right action to realize these things. To me, that was huge—not only are we saying this is what we want, but we are committed to carrying those things out.”
Principal Totten and Dr. Georgius made sure to involve teachers in the vision-setting process, asking teachers to create a list of “look-fors” in math instruction, including meaningful student engagement and standards alignment. This guided the creation of a vision walkthrough tool that would inform teacher coaching and PL.
Putting the vision walkthrough tool to work
Instruction Partners helped Dr. Georgius and Principal Totten put the vision walkthrough tool to work in classrooms, settling on a two-week cycle of instructional rounds. After leaving each classroom, they spent a few minutes discussing what they saw and what feedback they would give to the teacher. This process allowed Principal Totten to give teachers timely and actionable feedback around what to celebrate and where to focus improvement efforts.
“When we walked into the classroom, we wanted to see students approaching problems from multiple angles, we wanted to see them persevering in the face of challenging work and also communicating with one another,” says Principal Totten. “We also wanted to see teachers communicating the learning target or goal to the students, then really making sure they were working with everyone, empowering all students to achieve the expectation of the target.”
With the support of the Instruction Partners team, Dr. Georgius helped Principal Totten support teachers who had questions about how to employ certain strategies, frame questions differently, and get clearer on meaning-making. “For example,” Dr. Georgius says, “we have a standard that’s about understanding what it means to multiply. We also have a standard about the multiplication procedure. So I would really dig into the materials with the principal and teachers to understand when we need to be talking about meaning and when we need to work on perfecting the procedure— when the exit ticket should be about students understanding what it means to multiply and when it’s about understanding when and how to use specific multiplication strategies.”
As the observations continued, the data from the walkthrough tool showed that the teachers were following through with the vision they created. “We saw quite a bit of instructional change over a short amount of time and so much more consistency in the quality of instruction,” says Dr. Georgius.
As teacher practice improves, so does student success
Aligning around a vision and putting the vision to work proved to be a successful strategy for improving teacher practice, student experience, and academic achievement. “Our student scores went up significantly from the previous year,” says Principal Totten. “In 2020–21, on average 35% of our students in grades 4 through 6 were proficient in math based on assessment scores—after a year of support, on average 67% of students are proficient.”
“Those are huge gains,” says Michael Coon from Instruction Partners, who worked directly with Dr. Georgius and Principal Totten. “It was exciting to see how the visioning work contributed to student achievement and to know it resulted from our partnership with with ESU #2.”
At the school level, cultural shifts go hand in hand with academic improvement. “Working with teachers gave them a feeling of being in it together, each of us agreeing on the change we wanted to see,” says Dr. Georgius. “Creating our vision statement was the first step in shifting mindsets—we made a formal declaration that this is the kind of instruction we want our students to receive; this way, it’s not just fluffy and floating out there. Teachers know, ‘my principal is coming in to make sure I’m making that happen.’ Teachers have way more confidence because they are getting constant, high-quality feedback on how they can grow and improve.”
“I’m now able to walk into math classrooms and know what I specifically should be watching for, because it’s based on the vision,” says Principal Totten. “Teachers are less nervous about classroom observations because it is seen as an opportunity to work together more and find out what we can do to make things better. It’s a feeling of ‘we’re all in this together’ rather than a ‘gotcha’ moment.”
“Every teacher is just amazing, and that is also what makes this work,” says Dr. Georgius. “They’re more than willing to do anything. And they have great ideas. They looked at the data and said, ‘Oh, we should get better at this. How do we do that? How should we work on that?’”
Replicating the model as more schools adopt HQIM
Principal Totten offers several pieces of advice to other school leaders looking to implement a high-quality math curriculum:
- Involve teachers in the adoption process: “that builds buy-in for the program.”
- Find the right professional development: “I would never again assume that the company you buy the materials from is the best option for professional development.”
- Make sure teachers feel supported: “observations and feedback need to be completed in a way that is helpful for them, with really clear instructional goals.”
- Give teachers the tools they need to be great: “teachers really want to be exceptional, but they just need to be given the right time and the right professional development opportunities.”
ESU #2 is starting to support more schools in implementing HQIM. Dr. Georgius’s work with Lyons-Decatur Northeast Elementary School revealed how essential it is for teachers to have a united vision of what they want math to look like, so, for schools adopting HQIM this year, she will work with staff to first create a vision for math instruction and then look for materials that fit with that vision.
“This work with Instruction Partners has validated my own views on math education, but has also helped me grow by just having someone else to collaborate with that I consider an expert in the area,” says Dr. Georgius. “I’m the only person at my ESU that really works with math: I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to learn alongside Instruction Partners and dive into what’s happening,” says Dr. Georgius. “It’s really become a great partnership, not only with Instruction Partners but also between me and my principals.”
NDE and Instruction Partners are now in their third year of partnership with the statewide math program, and state leaders are seeing progress across the state. Marissa Payzant, Director of Content Area Standards & Instruction at NDE, reflects, “The collaboration with Instruction Partners has helped us build coherence in how we talk about instructional materials and why strong implementation is so important to student success. It has allowed school leaders, ESU staff, teachers, and NDE to work together toward the same goals and speak the same language about the student learning experience.”
The partnership with ESU #2 has provided a model for how regional centers across Nebraska and outside the state can work together with instructional experts to provide meaningful, multilayered support to leaders and teachers in service of better outcomes for students.