Karen King, director of research at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), and Laura Ann Hulsebus, special education teacher and department chair at Alpenglow Elementary School in Anchorage, Alaska, spoke about the ways in which teachers’ work is organized in the United States and how teachers work together to enact an intended curriculum.
King began with a national overview. This was followed by Hulsebus’s description of her experiences as a special education teacher in very different school districts: one in rural Iowa and one in urban Alaska. After these presentations, the Korean participants commented, initiating a discussion with the U.S. participants.
Karen King agreed with previous speakers that there is a tremendous variability in the United States. Within the 50 states, there are 14,000 public school districts and more than 90,000 schools. Each is a potential source of variability. This affects both the intended curriculum and how teachers work.
State textbook adoption was mentioned earlier. In a few states, the state selects textbooks and within those states, if a district wants to buy different textbooks, it must use its own money. If it wants to use the state’s money to buy textbooks, it must select a textbook from the list provided by the state. Districts that buy their own textbooks add to the variation in the intended curriculum.
Curriculum development and guidance is local—generally at the district level. A district might adopt a state textbook and have the same standards as its state. However, it might make its own decisions about which lessons or units in textbooks to teach and the order in which these are taught. Policy guidance is local, usually at the district level.
Curriculum material is sometimes teacher created or what King called “teacher found.” There are many sites where lessons and other curriculum material are posted on the Web, including the NCTM-sponsored site, Illuminations.
Thus, there may be differences in intended curriculum at the state, local, teacher, or student level.1 Variability also occurs in school structures, teacher working conditions, and administrative expectations. How schools are organized and how teachers use their work time
1 For further discussion of student-level variation, see the comments on special education at the end of the chapter.
can be very different from one school to the next, even within the same district or state. Therefore, it is very hard to paint a picture of what is typical in the United States. Research has described many factors that mediate progress from the intended to the enacted curriculum (cf., Stein et al., 2007). These include teacher knowledge (mathematical or pedagogical), time, teacher pedagogical skill, and local curriculum development and guidance.
Time varies. For example, some secondary schools have 45- or 50-minute class periods. Others have a “block scheduling,” with 90-minute periods. This affects what happens to lessons, due to different amounts of time for exploration or discussion.
In contrast, if teachers offer children too much time to work on a problem, it can create classroom management problems. Another aspect of pedagogical skill is the setup of a task in the classroom. Others are management of classroom discourse, monitoring of student learning and engagement, and making adjustments to tasks along the way. All of these affect movement from the intended curriculum to the enacted curriculum.
Over the past 10 years, there has been a focus on teachers working together. A recent focus has been professional learning communities (PLCs): an infrastructure or a way of working together that results in continuous school improvement (Hord, 1997). These usually occur at the school level and vary from lesson study-like activities to common planning time. They may be entirely teacher directed and organized, or organized by the school. In terms of curriculum implementation, their focus may range from curriculum planning to the examination of student work to focus on the results of standardized and local assessments (Supovitz, 2002).
Cooperative activities such as these appear to be on the increase. In the 2007–2008 school year, 81.9 percent of public school teachers reported that there was a great deal of cooperative effort among staff, up from 77.5 percent in 1994–1995.2
PLCs may focus on larger school initiatives rather than on classroom instruction. Research suggests that in order to affect student achievement, the focus of a PLC needs to be instruction (Supovitz, 2002). However, other foci may affect teacher morale or interest.
Areas of focus related to classroom instruction include enhancing teachers’ own mathematical knowledge for teaching; identifying and focusing on common student misunderstandings; and understanding the key mathematical ideas in the intended curriculum, specific pedagogical strategies for enacting that curriculum in the classroom, and assessment tasks and strategies to monitor student progress and inform instructional decision making.
There are barriers to the implementation of PLCs. These include insufficient time for the PLCs to meet. For example, the typical teacher in a high school may have one free planning period, which may not occur at the same time as his or her colleague’s. Finding a time to meet together,
2 U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Schools and Staffing Survey: Public Teacher Questionnaire, selected years 1993–1994 through 2007–2008; Private Teacher Questionnaire, selected years 1993–1994 through 2007–2008; Charter Teacher Questionnaire, 1999–2000. See https://nces.ed.gov/surveys/sass/questionnaire.asp.
and, in some urban schools, a space, may be difficult. When teachers do meet, the meeting agenda may get diverted to other issues.
PLCs need administrative support and teacher leadership. There is considerable teacher and administrator mobility in the United States. Without broadly distributed leadership, movement of leaders may jeopardize the health of the PLC.
Lack of access to external resources may be a barrier. Some PLCs include mathematics educators and mathematicians from local universities, mathematics coaches, or others who provide support for teachers. This may be particularly important for PLCs with many very inexperienced teachers and not enough more experienced peers capable of supporting them. Another barrier may be lack of administrative leadership that prioritizes PLCs and monitors their progress. Prioritizing PLCs requires administrators to support them, to find ways to monitor the effectiveness of the PLC, and to seek out and support access to external resources. If the administration does not support these activities, then the PLC cannot go forward.
A Teacher’s Perspective
Laura Anne Hulsebus described her 13 years of teaching. She reiterated the variability of the United States: Every single state is different, every single school district is different, and every single classroom is different. This variability is illustrated by her teaching career.
Her career began in rural Iowa, in a school of fewer than 300 students between prekindergarten and grade 12. This school was part of a consolidated district for five towns, which had kept two of five school buildings open. There was one special education teacher for each level—preschool and elementary, middle school, and high school. Before Hulsebus started, there were two special education teachers, one in the middle school building and one in the high school building. Elementary special education students would come to the middle school or high school for one class period as schedules permitted.
On her first day, Hulsebus was told that the school had never had a special education elementary teacher before and did not have a special education curriculum. She was given a room that looked like a closet with carpet on half the wall. The superintendent told her, “I’ll be in my office if you need me.”
There was very little professional development. Some of the teachers would coordinate, some would close their doors. The teachers had quarterly meetings to create the standards. All students were tested on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills.
The school was literacy focused. At least two hours a day were spent on reading, and less than an hour on mathematics and science. Because Hulsebus was the only elementary teacher trained in assessment, she was required to do all the assessments for all the elementary students (about 100), and report the results to the state.
The special education teachers felt very isolated, said Hulsebus. They did not have anyone else to go to for support. The occupational therapist, physical therapist, school psychologist, and
social workers were part of the area association and not part of the school district. To schedule meetings, people who lived in different towns needed to be contacted.
In the mornings, Hulsebus taught reading and mathematics in the same room to approximately 20 students in grades 3, 4, and 5. This included a gifted grade 5 student who was working at a high school level. Hulsebus had a 15-minute transfer to the next school, during which she ate lunch in her car. At the end of the day, she taught at a private Catholic school to which the public school provided services. She did not have time for planning.
After six years in Iowa, Hulsebus was ready to leave teaching because of the lack of support. As a last-ditch effort, she began teaching in Anchorage, Alaska.
The Anchorage school district is quite different. With just under 50,000 students, it is a much larger district than in Iowa. Depending on the case load, the number of special education teachers fluctuates. During 2011–2012, Hulsebus’s school had two full-time and two part-time special education teachers. Two years earlier, there were four full-time special education teachers. The school district is large enough to have an autism classroom. Students who need additional services may attend specialized schools.
In contrast with her situation in Iowa, Hulsebus can choose among six different special education curricula for mathematics. Because there are specialized classrooms and schools, she is not required to teach all special education students.
In Anchorage, when a new curriculum is adopted, all teachers are given professional development. Teachers new to the district are required to attend professional development for each curriculum that they teach. Most of the time, teachers are paid to take professional development. There are addendums and graduate credit is provided for a reasonable price. For teachers like Hulsebus, this is a good incentive to keep taking additional professional development beyond what is required.
Depending on the building, some elementary teachers work together and some do not. In Hulsebus’s building, about half of the teachers coordinate by grade level. There is block scheduling for language arts and mathematics, and a block time during which teachers can choose to meet.
The school psychologist, occupational therapist, physical therapist, and teacher consultant are all part of the Anchorage School District and are in her building at least once, sometimes twice, per week. There are monthly special education team meetings.
There are three grade 6 classrooms in her school. One is technology based with an interactive whiteboard and online lessons. One is traditional. The third is a social–emotional learning classroom that is “fully included.” Half of the students are special education and two-thirds of the non–special-education students are at risk, Tier II, or nonproficient. In this classroom, Hulsebus team teaches with a general education teacher.
The grade 6 teachers all collaborate, trying to stay on the same mathematics lesson. (This is not typical for the school as a whole.) In placing students, the grade 5 teachers decide which teacher best fits the students’ needs.
Comments following this discussion on teachers’ professional development education expressed a wide range of ideas of what works and what does not in both the United States and Korea. Some of those comments are listed below.
Professional learning communities
- Some U.S. elementary schools allocate blocks of at least 45 minutes to an hour per grade level at least once a week to PLCs. Some schools are lucky enough to have it twice a week, and some get it every day.
- U.S. participants have been aware that U.S. classrooms are places of isolation. There is a history in the United States of some very strong professional learning communities taking place for 30 or 35 years, but they are in little pockets. Over time, the idea of PLCs and the idea that teachers may learn more from talking to one another about their practice than from sitting in a workshop have taken hold. Schools and school districts are starting to initiate PLCs in their different individual ways, providing opportunities for teachers to talk to one another. For example, they might start with a “problem of practice,” where a teacher presents a problem of practice and others ask questions, discuss, and give feedback.
- American administrators sometimes have to force teachers out of their classrooms to make them participate in grade-level communication. Districts try to get at least one representative from every school to come and get professional development.
Professional development in the United States
- Providers of professional development have proliferated over the past 10 years or so. There are different teachers, often participating in different professional development and being held accountable for different actions, depending on the provider. That has been the subject of a lot of research in the United States.
- In the United States, there are three types of professional development: college and university level, district and state level, and national level. At the college and university level, teachers need to renew their licenses every five years, so they take courses—about six college credits.3 These are not necessarily related to math and can be education courses. At the district and state levels, teachers do not need to pay, and they can take two workshops to renew their licenses. At the national level, professional development needs could be fulfilled by attending national conferences, such as NCTM. Sometimes teachers pay their own way, and sometimes they get school or school district support.
- The definition of special education is very similar in both countries.
3 Renewal requirements vary by state. See Stillman and Blank, 2009, Table 16.
- Since 2009, special education in Korea has been gradually getting attention, and is required for [teacher] certification. Students with severe disabilities are placed in self-contained classrooms, and students with mild disabilities are placed in inclusion classes in regular schools. Students move from inclusion class to self-contained and vice versa.
- The United States has inclusion as well as resources for special education students.4 For elementary education, Korea and the United States follow the same approach. However, for middle and high school, U.S. students are not excluded from regular education, but their parents choose to send their children to special schools for special education services.
- Special education can apply to any student who is not average; they could be above average (gifted students) or below average (students with various kinds of learning problems). In Korea and the United States, there are programs for gifted students, but in the United States, the programs for below average students are much larger and have a significant effect on the school system. These students very often require many more resources per individual to learn, so it is quite an expensive operation.
- Another effect is that it has increased the cost-per-pupil spending on education in the United States, but it has not increased the achievement level, because most of the extra money is going to low-achieving students. So special education has sort of created a new set of problems for United States education.
- What happens in the United States when the child receives a special education diagnosis is that she or he is given what is called an Individualized Education Program (IEP), which is where accommodations are listed. Once a child has an IEP, the educational institution must honor that. That is why it is called “accommodation.” Any time there is an accommodation, it has to be listed in an IEP.
- Special education students generate more money for school districts than the regular education students. The IEP is a legally binding contract; anything that is written in an IEP stands up in a court of law. A lot of district money goes to lawsuits, if things are not followed on the IEP. So in the paperwork for a special-needs student, teachers feel like they are constantly proving that they are following the IEP to make sure that they are not sued.
- [Teacher certification for special education] differs from state to state in the United States. Some teachers might be certified just for “high-incidence special education,” which usually means “learning disabled.” In the United States, the Council for Exceptional Children is the organization primarily concerned with the education of teachers and with curriculum development for students with special needs.
- More and more students in America are being identified as special education and are in regular education classrooms. State by state, teacher programs are being required to include special education coursework in regular teacher education.
- Some U.S. districts have realized that special educators working in math classrooms may not have a mathematics degree or background.
4 The Multi-Tiered System of Supports and the Response to Intervention are resources commonly used for special education students in the United States. See, e.g., http://www.districtadministration.com/article/multi-tier-system-supports and http://www.rtinetwork.org/learn/what/whatisrti.