Lessons from Innovators: Erikson Institute's Early Math Initiative

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The process of moving an educational innovation from a good idea to widespread effective implementation is far from straightforward, and no one has a magic formula for doing it. The William T. Grant and Spencer Foundations, with help from the Forum for Youth Investment, have created a community composed of grantees in the federal Investing in Innovation (i3) program to share ideas and best practices. Our Success for All program participates in this community. In this space, I, in partnership with the Forum for Youth Investment, highlight observations from the experiences of i3 grantees other than our own, in an attempt to share the thinking and experience of colleagues out on the front lines of evidence-based reform.

This blog post is based on an interview between the Forum for Youth Investment and Jennifer McCray, Project Director for the Erikson Institute's Early Math Collaborative. Their i3 development project is entering its third year of implementation, and McCray's team has begun to learn important lessons about how to develop an idea and move it into practice at both the teacher and school levels to ensure sustainability.

The goal of the Erikson Early Math Collaborative is to help teachers get better at teaching math to young children through intensive professional development, on-site coaching, school-based learning communities, and in-class support. Erikson's i3 grant is supporting work in eight control and eight intervention schools. When asked about their goals for scale and sustainability, like many other i3 development project directors, McCray is uncertain. "This gets back to the question of what our role should be," she commented. "We know we want to help teachers and schools be better math educators. And we want to learn from what we are doing and document that learning. I'd even say we'd like to try this again in eight new schools so we can apply what we have learned. But I'm not sure that our role is to figure out how to scale this up. That is an important question, but I'm not sure we are best suited to answer it." For Erikson and for a number of university-based i3 projects, development grants are really about learning, understanding what seems to work well and what does not, and sharing lessons with others who may be positioned to implement and potentially scale up these lessons. Some of Erikson's initial lessons are summarized below.

Pay attention to the context of implementation

Originally, the project engaged teachers largely in isolation. That is, teachers would come to Erikson for training or to participate in learning labs. Sometimes professional development would be delivered at school sites, but little attention was paid to schools as the contexts in which the intervention was unfolding. After a year or so of implementation, they began to see how important the individual school environment was to the success of their project. McCray muses, "We knew on paper how important the climate and culture were, but it took time to understand the processes at each school that could help our intervention thrive. For example, grade-level meetings were new to us. We were surprised by how rich and fruitful they turned out to be. We began to take more advantage of those meetings as a place to discuss teaching strategies." One story illustrates the value of this shift. One of their teachers was reluctant to try a piece of the intervention called "number strings," which helps students see the relationship between numbers. "The teacher really didn't want to do it," recalls McCray, "but the whole grade-level team decided they were going to do it because they had identified flexible solutions to solving arithmetic problems as a priority. So the teacher did it even though she didn't want to and was amazed at how well it worked and how much the students seemed to really like it. Now it has become a regular part of her classroom. What she learned isn't just a little trick - it is a whole approach that she will hopefully keep using in her classroom forever." Having the grade-level team behind her, as opposed to just Erikson staff encouraging her to try something new, this teacher adopted a strategy that she may not have otherwise.

Think about sustainability at multiple levels

The team at Erikson knows they will need to begin to pull back next year and work out a thoughtful exit strategy from their current schools. Although coaching, training sessions at Erikson, and on-site support will continue to be major components of the project, they are thinking a lot about school-level sustainability. McCray noted, "Teachers really need more ownership of their learning process, so we are trying to create a professional learning community at the school level that institutionalizes and creates supports for teachers." This year, Erikson will implement a new intervention - lesson study - a process of school-based, peer learning that involves teachers working together to do intensive lesson planning. McCray explains a lesson study this way: "A group of teachers starts by thinking about a unit and talking about which topics in the unit kids are not getting the way they should be. Then the teachers do research, find resources, and learn how others teach this topic. Then they plan a lesson and deliver it in front of their colleagues for feedback and discussion." The hope is to instigate the formation of a local professional learning community that can foster school-level supports and embed reflective practice into the culture of the school.

Be prepared to prioritize

Because the Early Math Collaborative is intensive and requires a great deal of teachers' time, Erikson knew from the outset that in order for it to be sustainable, they would have to think strategically about what is core and what can be optional. "We are aware that this is an expensive intervention," McCray explains. "We always knew we would have to streamline for it to be sustainable beyond the i3 grant. We have learned to watch for which pieces seem to have more bang for the buck, which pieces seem to facilitate greater shifts in sustainability, and where there may be potential efficiencies. For example, we have found that when teachers have a chance to share with each other more and come together to discuss strategies, that helps with accountability and engagement more so than one-on-one coaching and PD." Prioritizing is key.