Transform Classroom Learning by Embracing Instructional Shifts

Increasing student performance under more rigorous standards requires deliberate shifts in instruction and curriculum. To learn what districts are doing to improve student performance, we interviewed five districts that observed student performance gains on 2017 math summative assessments. In these districts, the percentage of students meeting or exceeding state performance standards increased in at least three grades. These districts shared their improvement efforts that they believe had the greatest impact on increasing scores. Each of these districts took on the challenges of implementing rigorous mathematics college- and career-ready standards by:

  • Learning the mathematical instructional shifts,
  • Helping staff fill in gaps in math content knowledge, and
  • Transforming classroom learning of mathematics.

The following themes emerged from these conversations:

Districts adopt policies to define curriculum, monitor the success of learning, and ensure that students are prepared for the future. These policies and accompanying administrative regulations implement state and federal laws by giving clear direction to the Superintendent and staff, but they also communicate to the community the purpose and intended impact of the implementation of these laws.[1] Without district-adopted policy, the effort for district-wide implementation often falls short with a lack of district and school staff resources or support. These districts recognized the need to ensure that all students had the benefit and impact of more rigorous learning. To that end, they implemented a comprehensive set of strategies that include policies in graduation requirements, assessment, grading, and teacher evaluation that changed fundamental services for students.

Ontario-Montclair, California enacted policies focused on improving curriculum implementation:

  • The district adopted new English language arts (ELA) and math instructional materials with systems to monitor the degree to which the adopted curriculum is implemented with fidelity including supplemental materials, lesson plans, and instruction.
  • District staff, administrators, coaches, and teachers regularly participated in Instructional Rounds, where teams observed classroom learning and provided feedback to school staff and reflected on adjustments that could be made to improve curriculum implementation to improve student performance.
  • The district held district and site data meetings to monitor implementation of the adopted programs.

Carlsbad Unified, California enacted policies focused on the implementation of high quality curriculum and instructional practices:

  • The district increased graduation requirements for the Class of 2017 to meet or exceed eligibility to enroll in UC/CSU. All students had to pass Algebra II with a grade of C or better.
  • The graduation policy ensured that all students are on a pathway to Algebra II and have district-supported early intervention if they fall behind in Algebra I.
  • The district revised the English Learner (EL) re-designation criteria to include authentic reading and writing tasks aligned to standards assessed on the California English Language Development Test (CELDT).
  • Principals met with each English learner student to explain the purposes of the state assessments and why they are important.

Galt Joint Union Elementary, California enacted policies to change teaching and learning from traditional groups to personalized instruction:

  • The district focused on creating opportunities for teachers, students, and their families to engage in the learning process as described in California Standards of the Teaching Profession[2] and the Educator Competencies for Personalized Learner-Centered Teaching.[3]
  • The district changed its grading policy from using traditional report cards to personalized online learning plans reflecting a district shift from a student-centered proficiency focus to a learner-centered growth and achievement model.
  • District staff, school administrators, and site teachers began meeting with students and parents to collaborate on goal setting, setting growth targets and adding or adjusting information within the student’s profile.


  1. The laws referred to include the following:
  2. Commission on Teacher Credentialing. 2009. California Standards for the Teaching Profession (CSTP). Sacramento, CA: Commission on Teacher Credentialing.
  3. Jobs for the Future & the Council of Chief State School Officers. 2015. Educator Competencies for Personalized, Learner-Centered Teaching. Boston, MA: Jobs for the Future.

In preparation to teach the new California math academic standards, these districts spent 2–3 years helping teachers address needs in content knowledge. In 2014–15, the Smarter Balanced Assessment System gave teachers their first look at the types of items that assess student learning in ways that met the intent and rigor of the state standards. Teachers attended training for scoring and other professional learning opportunities allowing them to unpack what they had learned about assessments. Districts developed or offered professional development about constructed response items and used model responses to demonstrate to teachers the depth of understanding expected for students to meet or exceed the standards.

Whittier City Schools, California used targeted professional learning to improve instructional practice and incorporated assessment data to evaluate progress:

  • The district increased capacity of K-2 teachers to improve students’ mathematic fluency earlier through the implementation of lesson study in math concepts and practices.
  • Teachers in grades 3–8 were released for two days to study the curriculum alignment of their new grade-level math program materials, the math content and practice standards, and the IABs.
  • Teachers identified the standards assessed in each IAB and the sufficiency or gaps in lessons in the math program. They built lessons that fully addressed the standards.
  • In bi-monthly meetings, math coaches and principals discussed the implementation of the math curriculum, the IAB performance data, student needs based on the IAB data, and how to adjust pacing in the classrooms to emphasize concept development and focus.
  • Paying attention to their data, teams focused on teacher coaching needs and effective implementation of the complete math curriculum to address a concern about slow increases in performance on IABs. Student performance improved on IABs in the second half of the year.

Fallbrook Union Elementary District, California deliberatively used statewide content supports and assessment data to support changes in policies and practices related to instruction:

  • The coaches and teachers also unpacked the Smarter Balanced IABs to align the implementation of the IABs with the sequence of content described in the District’s curriculum.
  • District teams developed two benchmark assessments using the Smarter Balanced resources to create more coherence between district benchmarks and the curriculum and the assessments that support the benchmarks.
  • The district worked with the Math Project at UC Irvine to develop Units of Study to organize the math curriculum based on the CA Math Framework.
  • The district focused on identifying and addressing teacher needs in content knowledge to improve the implementation of the curriculum and use of assessment data. Coaches at every school spent the first trimester developing and sharing model lessons to demonstrate how to deepen understanding of math concepts and practices.
  • District staff set performance expectations for staff and students to improve student math outcomes while supporting teachers by aligning district resources, materials, and trainings to focus on implementation of math concepts.
  • The district enacted systematic monitoring and evaluation of progress through School-based Professional Learning Communities (PLC) who collaborated to study the data from IABs and district benchmarks and adjust curriculum implementation.

Moving forward, district staff will help principals and coaches retrieve the IAB data and plan conversations in data reflection meetings. In addition, all teachers in grades 3–8 will participate in two half-days of lesson study to deepen their knowledge in curriculum alignment and data analysis.

Due to the potential impact that peer leadership can bring to changes in teaching and learning, each district dedicated staff (e.g., teacher leaders, coaches, special assignments) and resources to optimize the impact of math curriculum implementation.

Whittier City Schools, California coaches supported teacher transition to a complex middle school math program.

  • The district placed math coaches in middle schools to help teachers implement the new math program.
  • The district provided backward planning support aligned to Interim Assessment Blocks and benchmark assessments.

Fallbrook Union Elementary, California focused on-site coaching on math content knowledge and building deep understanding in staff and students.

  • On-site, full-time coaches provided job-embedded coaching, co-teaching, time for teachers to observe other teachers and classrooms, and assistance with teacher lesson planning.
  • Principals and coaches talked frequently about what content knowledge teachers needed to be able to help students learn deeper conceptual understandings and make complex applications and facilitated professional learning for teachers.
  • Administrators and coaches witnessed a change in teacher practice once students were regularly engaging in deeper conceptual understanding.

Ontario-Montclair School District, California recognized exemplary teaching and learning by identifying Spotlight Classrooms and supported visits from teacher-coach teams to observe best practices.

  • The district designated 18 Spotlight Classrooms for teachers to visit with a teacher-coach and observe an instructional practice in a learning environment where student performance is 18–20 percentage points higher than the CAASPP district average.
  • Since 100% of teachers polled believed that the Spotlight visit was valuable to their practice, the district goal for this year is to increase the number of teacher-coach team visits from 200 to over 300.
  • The district hired two Teachers on Special Assignment at middle school to develop criteria for addressing language needs of Long-Term English Learners.
  • English learner students in grades 6-8 participated in individual conferences and learned about their own performance data to motivate them to work toward English learner re-designation.

Carlsbad Unified, California selected teachers in grades 4 and 5 to lead school-based professional learning.

  • The district selected teacher leaders in grades 4 and 5 to meet with the Teacher on Special Assignment to help these teachers understand math practice standards and key math strategies.
  • The teachers then led professional learning sessions to help all teachers in grades 4 and 5 implement the new curriculum and embedded assessments.

Galt Joint Union Elementary, California experienced success with teacher leadership and Professional Learning Community (PLC) efforts. This led to the placement of school administrator peer coaches who worked to build data fluency and expose educators to multiple sources and leadership practices.

  • The Principal on Special Assignment provided coaching to other principals on how to build and apply the student profile for the personalized learning plan and to use data from multiple sources, including social emotional measures, to make flexible groupings for students.
  • Over 30 teachers participated in Stanford University’s Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) where they engaged in a process of analyzing student language. This involved understanding how content knowledge and language use are refined during collaborative conversations and the role of argument as a high leverage practice across disciplines.

These districts responded to the urgent need to help students learn math in a new way in response to implementation of rigorous college- and career-ready math standards. With updated policies, responsive curriculum, and informative results, these districts built a foundation for program implementation with aligned support for educators. Each element is necessary, but by itself, not sufficient, to accomplish the positive results described here. All elements work together to bring meaningful and sustainable improvement in student learning and achievement.