Close the opportunity gap by providing small group math instruction for our highest need students in order to accelerate their academic growth.

Coordinator Leadership Academy – Opening Remarks

Tim Johnson

Director, Denver Math Fellows


I. Welcome and Gratitude

Welcome back for the 2015-2016 school year! I hope that everyone had an enjoyable and restful summer and a big thank you for the hiring each of you completed over the summer. A special shout out here to Nina and her nieces for participating in each hiring event and provided invaluable feedback on candidates in the math fellow selection process.


As we begin this week and the new school year I’d like to start out by showing some gratitude to the individuals who have made this happen.


First off, thank you Tre and Seth for the work both of you have done to generate nearly 1,000 math fellow applicants and put us on track to be fully staffed by the beginning of the year.


Thank you Darlene for all of the behind-the-scenes work you have done to manage the final interview process for local and non-local candidates as well as onboarding for all fellows.


Ericca, thank you for graciously joining our team as a summer intern with Education Pioneers. I appreciate the work you have done to develop systems to facilitate data driven instruction for the upcoming school year.


Anthony, thank you for taking on the curriculum coherence project as well as the mastery checks to ensure that we are attending to both student gaps and support of grade level content in a coherent manner. I am also thankful for your efforts in bringing a number of stakeholders together in the identification of NWEA MAP as our new diagnostic and growth assessment.


I would also like to recognize the following individuals who worked with Anthony on the curriculum project and assessment reviews: Annie, Heather, Tiffany, Lucy, Kendyl, Shaun, Gabrielle, Nick, Jenn, Eric and Kim.


Kathy, thank you for developing coherent and meaningful professional development experiences for the next two weeks and for articulating a year-long scope and curating materials for professional development to be utilized during the year. I appreciate you and the work that has gone into this week and next.


I would also like to recognize the following individuals who worked with Kathy on the content and design of summer trainings and PD for the year: Tiffany, Kristin, Kim, Gaby, Jeff, Francy, Gigi, and Susanna.


There are a lot of “thank yous” because of the fact that there are many individuals who make up the DMF team and we are at our best when we work with and challenge each other, when we contribute to something beyond our individual selves.


Now, I’m going to spend some time looking back at lessons learned, looking ahead to focus areas for the upcoming year and then I will close with a challenge for each of us.


II. A Look Back

As many of you know, the math fellow model was developed at a no excuses charter school in Boston that works with low-income African American and Hispanic students who regularly outperform their suburban peers and 100% of whom are annually admitted into 2 or 4-year colleges.


The founding idea of the program in Boston is incredibly simple: Private tutoring is a multi-billion dollar industry in the United States that is mainly accessed by affluent families. To expand opportunity to individualized attention and instruction, let’s offer 1:1 and 1:2 support during the school day in math and literacy and at the same time create a service year opportunity for recent college graduates.


When charter schools began one of the initial promises was that practices at charters could be brought to scale in traditional public schools. Charter schools operate outside of school district bureaucracy and generally have more flexibility and autonomy than traditional public schools.


I want to briefly pause here as so much in education is characterized as an either/or, a turf battle. Based on data, charters on average do not outperform traditional public schools. However, a subset of charters, known as no excuses charter schools, have shown prodigious results and closed achievement gaps with low-income students of color.


Instead of either/or in terms of what governance type is best, Harvard economist Roland Fryer began to study these no-excuses charters in order to identify what practices could be brought to scale in traditional public schools.


That led to the identification of the following tenets that were first implemented in traditional public schools in Houston. Those tenets are:


  1. Extended school day and year
  2. The use of data to drive instruction
  3. Devotion to high quality human capital
  4. A no excuses culture of high expectations
  5. Small group instruction


Since 2011, Denver has worked to bring these practices to traditional public schools starting with a pilot in Denver’s Far Northeast.


Of all the tenets, small group instruction, and specifically the fellow model, correlates most directly to positive outcomes for kids. The other approaches are essential, and generally inform our work but at the same time are difficult to measure and study with challenges in terms of causality and directly linking practice with outcome.


Because of this, there are a number of districts that have decided to pilot the math fellow program model outside of whole school turnaround. Denver is unique in that funding for our program is based on a ballot initiative from 2012 that bundled the expansion of the math fellow program with additional arts and PE funding.


That’s not to say that we will always have funding for our program. It’s more accurate to say that as long as we get results with kids we will have funding.


So, two years ago Denver Math Fellows was founded with the launch of the program in 39 schools across DPS for the 2013-2014 school year.


In the two years since launch, there have been a number of things we got right and some definite areas for growth. I’ll start with what we got right: People and culture.


People – that starts with each of you and the centrality of your leadership role and work in schools for the success of the program. From the start we knew it was essential to get great people to lead fellows: people who are educational engineers willing to work with what they have to find solutions; people who embody a no excuses attitude when it comes to the ability of our kids to achieve at high levels; and people who use that attitude to inspire and push their teams to provide necessary supports to kids.   A large part of your role is, of course, instructional leadership but there is also leadership work that you do to set a vision, inspire others and model the way that is critical to our success.


Culture – this is the environment that is created by you and fellows in math lab. That environment, at it’s best, is joyful, rigorous and personalized. You can feel it when you walk in to a room during a silent do now and 100% of kids are independently working. You can see it when students are working out problems at the white board and explaining their thinking as the fellow facilitates from the sidelines. You know it when students choose to spend their lunchtime with their fellows.


People and culture are foundational and to a considerable extent we have those two pieces of the puzzle in place. There is always more work to be done to improve but we do have a solid foundation to build upon.


Now, I’m going to briefly discuss areas for growth as a transition to a look ahead at our focus areas for the upcoming year.   One is content and the other is use of data.


Let’s start with content. We’ve had two missteps here. The first is an over emphasis on remediation, particularly at the middle school level. The second is not leading beyond either/or thinking when it comes to the teaching of math and the “math wars” with which many of you are familiar. It’s time we move beyond the either/or here and lead fellows to work with our students on both procedural fluency and conceptual understanding. Let’s not settle for the easy either/or.


The second is data and specifically access to accurate, timely and easy to use data to inform instruction. Part of this was due to an overemphasis on Scholastic Math Inventory and not enough focus on summative assessments like checks for understanding and exit tickets. This year we have an incredible opportunity to implement assessment for learning practices as part of a comprehensive assessment strategy.   This strategy will include a new diagnostic and growth measure as well as an increased focus on mastery of standards and student’s tracking their own progress and mastery.


Now, let’s look ahead to the upcoming school year and our shared work to build upon a foundation of people and culture in order to take our program to the next level.


III. A Look Ahead


For 2015-2016 we will have three focus areas:


  • Standards Implementation
  • Data Driven Instruction
  • Math Lab Mindset


Our focus on standards implementation connects with our need to grow, develop and improve in terms of curriculum and content. As stated previously, in year one we focused too much on remediation, particularly at the middle school level. Last year we had two distinct parts of math lab that often did not align and lacked coherence. In order to improve here Anthony and the individuals recognized earlier began a project to intentionally map foundational skills to grade level content in the development of unit plans and mastery checks to be used for the upcoming year. The benefits here will be numerous: 1) from a kid perspective there will be increased coherence with core math class; 2) instead of trying to fill all foundational gaps that work will be aligned to and in service of accessing grade level content; and 3) instead of two learning objectives during each math lab session, there will be one. Next, all across DPS there will be a focus on math practices 1 and 6 (make sense of problems and persevere in solving them and attend to precision). We will also focus on these two practices to reinforce the work being done in core math classes.


Our second focus area, data driven instruction, also correlates with an area in which we have room to grow. Our assessment vision in past years has been too narrow and I own that. As we move to a new diagnostic and growth assessment – NWEA MAP – we have a great opportunity to create a more comprehensive assessment strategy.


Our ultimate measure of success is the state assessment. Whether you agree with the weight placed on standardized test outcomes or not, the reality is that they are important for our kids in that standardized tests are gatekeepers for admission into and access to post-secondary opportunities.


With that said, MAP is an important measure of growth throughout the year and will be used at the start of school as a baseline diagnostic and at mid-year and end of year to measure growth. In total we will administer MAP three times as we reduce the amount of instructional time spent on assessments of learning and pivot to more robust use of assessments for learning.


Our assessments for learning, which will be central to our implementation of data driven instruction will be checks for understanding, exit tickets and mastery checks. Our mastery checks are essentially unit assessments that will be used to inform re-teach days that are built into each unit for the upcoming year. There is a ton of potential here and we will be depending on your leadership to work with fellows on the implementation of data driven instruction and a focus on assessment for learning.


Finally, we are going to continue our focus on math lab mindset in order to create a growth mindset organization, provide tools for a positive math lab environment and to support students and team members in understanding the brain like a muscle – the more effort you put in, the harder you work, the smarter you will get.


We are also introducing an influencer series this year highlighting professionals of color in STEM careers and leadership positions that will be available to share with students each month to ensure that they see themselves in all their potential.


Last year, our implementation of math lab mindset was uneven in that we had foundational work on malleable intelligence for middle school kids to engage but not elementary. This year, all students will engage in malleable intelligence work at the beginning of the year. We also had a number of lessons on deliberate practice delivered throughout the year at the middle school level. The feedback on those was that they were disconnected and not all that useful. Based on this feedback, we are not going to use the deliberate practice lessons this year.


Finally, at the start of last year we did not have the macro-structure, micro-moments lens for contextualizing the math lab mindset work. This year all fellows will be participating in that session early in the year to ground our work and build rationale for creating an environment in which kids feel capable, cared for and connected.


Now, I’d like to offer a few words on organizational and programmatic developments for the upcoming year. These include moving to an opt-in model for principals, shifting from a grade level focus to a student specific focus, the expansion of AmeriCorps education award benefits to all fellows, a streamlined math fellow bonus and more developed partnerships with organizations to facilitate opportunities for fellows after their service year.


I’m going to spend a few moments on each of these developments.


Opt-in: Annually, principals with DMF in their schools will have the opportunity to opt-in to DMF or opt-out and receive funds for school determined math interventions. If a principal opts out, we would no longer serve their school with the math fellow model and the school would be part of the school-determined programs that are supported by Kristin and Lucy. 100% of our principals from last year opted in to DMF and we are also adding Goldrick Elementary School, Schmitt Elementary School and Vista Academy to serve a total of 47 schools for the upcoming year. The opt-in mechanism is essential for creating principal buy-in and support.


Grade Levels Served: Another shift is our move away from serving specific grade levels to a focus on students with the greatest need based on individual school context. There are a number of benefits here including creating the conditions to serve our highest need students for consecutive years as well as really maxing out the number of students served by each fellow with more opportunities to schedule students in to math lab. The goal is for each fellow to serve a cohort of 24 kids (4 kids per period, 6 periods per day). If we accomplish this, we have the opportunity to serve over 5,500 kids this year.


AmeriCorps Benefits: Denver Math Fellows is now an AmeriCorps program. All lead, returning and new fellows, upon successfully completing their year of service, can earn a $5,730 education award that can be applied to eligible post-secondary institution costs and qualified student loans.  Fellows can also access additional benefits through the AmeriCorps network.


Streamlined Math Fellow Bonus: There is now one $2,000 bonus opportunity within the math fellow program that applies to all lead, returning and new fellows. The bonus will be awarded to fellows who meet eligibility requirements and who are a part of teams who realize high growth—MGP of 65+ for kids in the program.


Partnerships for Year after DMF: We have established partnerships with local and national education organizations to provide potential opportunities for fellows interested in launching a career in education.  Organizations include: Denver Teach Today, Denver Teacher Residency, DSST, Strive, KIPP and Teach for America.


Our focus areas and our programmatic developments are all part of our efforts to be responsive to feedback and to engage a cycle of continual improvement.


IV. A Challenge

Finally, I’m going to close out here with a challenge: this year I challenge each of you to embrace the awesome responsibility you have to lead teams of fellows, to positively impact kids. I challenge you to live our values, internalize our mission and vision and inspire your fellows to do the same.


I challenge you to cut through the urge to engage either/or thinking and lead your fellows with an attitude of together we can, whatever it takes, no excuses. We are the people we have been waiting for. The talent to make a huge difference in the lives of kids is in this room, let’s all embrace this responsibility and work with urgency to close opportunity gaps in Denver!


Together we can, whatever it takes, no excuses.


Have a great week and a great year! Thank you!