Instructional Leadership at Work

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As a high school math teacher at a charter school in Boston, I struggled to teach algebra to students with varying levels of math skills. Some entered my classroom still needing to master changing fractions to decimals and percentages, while others were ready to grapple with the quadratic equation, point-slope form and writing linear equations. At this school I was one of two ninth-grade algebra teachers among a team of four math teachers in the building. Through regular dialogue with my colleague Jeff, I learned that he faced similar challenges in his algebra classroom. Together we decided at the end of the first term of the school year to engage in a discussion with the math staff around how to better meet the mathematical learning needs of all of our ninth-grade students. We believed something could be done to correct the teaching and learning challenges in our classrooms before the end of the school year. It was evident to Jeff and me that heterogeneous grouping in the algebra classroom was not working. The inability to provide curricular challenge for higher performers was affecting student engagement and motivation, and the inability to adequately support struggling students (due to lack of time and resources) was impacting students’ self-efficacy in math and overall academic self-confidence.

Despite my thorough knowledge of the negative effects of tracking for students, I knew that considering this structure for student grouping in the classroom might have to be an option for us. Tracking, also known as ability grouping, is the practice of grouping students together according to their academic talent and skills in a particular content area. In secondary schools, this can be a beneficial practice for high-performing students who are exposed to advanced placement and college preparatory coursework, but detrimental for lower-performing students who are often locked into lower-level classes that might not fully maximize their academic potential. Tracking often locks students into a certain pattern of course-taking with few opportunities to explore courses outside of one’s “track.” The last thing I wanted for the majority of my algebra students—who were primarily low-income students of color—was for them to be labeled as lower-level learners who required lowered expectations and watered-down curricula and instruction.

As Cotton (2003) states, effective instructional leaders are intensely involved in curricular and instructional issues that directly affect student achievement. As a math team in our school, we wanted to provide the best instruction for all algebra students under the most optimal conditions. A newsletter for the Reading First program (2005) identified key elements of instructional leadership to be:

  1. Prioritization of teaching and learning;
  2. Use of scientifically-based research to inform decision-making about instruction;
  3. Focus on alignment of curriculum, instruction, assessment, and standards;
  4. Use of multiple sources of information to assess performance; and,
  5. A culture of continuous learning for adults.

These elements were definitely at play in our discussions. As a team, we had been reviewing formal and informal student assessments and considering instructional practices for helping students meet grade-level benchmarks. After much discussion, we decided to give ability grouping a try. With the support of the school principal, our math team decided to create three different ninth-grade algebra “sections,” with an option for students to move between classes for the remainder of the year depending on their academic needs.

The challenge became how to explain the new structure to students in a way that made this move seem positive. In my classroom, I used a picture of the bell curve to assist me in helping my students understand how they would benefit from our experiment with tracked math classes in the second term.

Bell Curve

I explained to students that some of them were currently acquiring algebra skills at a rate average to peers at their same grade level (the middle section of the curve) across the country; others were moving at a slightly faster pace in acquiring algebra skills and needed more of a challenge (the right side of the curve); still others were moving at a slightly slower pace in acquiring algebra skills for this grade level (the left side of the curve). I let my students know that three algebra sections had been created to help them strengthen and hone their algebra skills based on current assessment data (formal and informal) that we had been collecting from them. Students understood that in some cases I had recommended they go into the faster-paced section because I saw their potential based on a solid skill foundation even though their performance did not mirror my perceptions. In other cases, I wanted students to understand that being in the slower-paced class would help them strengthen their math skills in order to transition to the “regular” or faster-paced section in the third term of the school year. Jeff utilized this same analogy. What we wanted to make sure students knew was that movement between tracks was possiblethat students’ trajectories were not fixed.

In this school, with this particular issue, we took an approach to instructional leadership in which we focused on the learning needs of our students, we were reflective about our practice with one another throughout the remainder of the school year, and we believed we were addressing the mathematical needs of the cultural and socioeconomic diversity in our school community. We did see quantifiable changes in students’ algebraic skills and continued the flexible tracking in the next school year. One of many lessons I learned from this experience as a K-12 educator is this: Instructional leadership requires thinking outside the box to obtain the best results for youth. Innovation and creativity are needed amongst a team for strengthening and learning community and improving student outcomes.

Cotton, K. (2003). Principles and student achievement. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
U.S. Department of Education (2005). What is instructional leadership and why is it so important?