Setting a Strategy for Your Mathematics Programs

Ahhh, the school year is coming to a close.  However, as a school leader, you are balancing closing this year on a strong note and already thinking about next year.  “What teachers are coming back?  How are we going to hire unfilled positions? What curriculum and instructional approaches will we continue or stop? What types of Title funded support would make the most impact? How can we get golden retrievers in every classroom?

Solution providers know this, which is why many are bombarding you with language and stories about the decisions you should make and why it will lead to better student outcomes. “Math programs from X-Curriculum PreK–12 are built on contemporary academic research. Your students' futures are brighter when they succeed in math.” Well, who wouldn’t want that!?

Instead of offering school leaders a prescribed solution for strategy, this edition of the Mathematics for Teaching blog from MathTrack Institute aims to provide school leaders with a way of thinking about strategy.  We will do so by:

  • Distinguishing between research and evidence-based language;
  • Why there is no one size fits all for your school(s), but why this should bring even greater optimism for learning outcomes and;
  • Provide thoughtful insights on how to think about strategy for your students, teachers, and community in the context of mathematics education.

Research-Based or Evidence-Based Programs?

You say to-may-to, I say to-maw-to… When curriculum publishers, professional services, or universities market products and programs, they use these terms interchangeably. However, in reality, they mean fundamentally different things. A research-based program is either an individual practice (single lesson or activity) or a program (year-long curriculum) based on principles and theories derived from educational research. These programs have a foundation in scientific theories and are informed by research findings. They may or may not have been directly tested through systematic experimental or quasi-experimental studies, but they incorporate best practices identified in existing research.

Conversely, an evidence-based program is either an individual practice or a program that goes a step further by requiring that it not only be based on theoretical research but also be empirically tested and shown to be effective through rigorous evaluation. This typically involves data demonstrating positive outcomes from multiple studies or settings. Evidence-based programs must demonstrate reliable, statistically significant results to earn that designation.

Does a research-based or evidence-based program align best with your strategy? If you are looking for something that is a one-size-fits-all, then it doesn’t matter which descriptors you come across. There is no perfect fit for all schools, no matter the number of studies, amount of sound research, or program design. Education is a complex social system, meaning there are an unquantifiable number of variables with an infinite range of possible outcomes.  After all, kids and teachers are not machines with gears; they are different daily and every hour.  This explains why school leaders and teachers observe that tactics that work with one class do not work with another.

The Good News is…Your Team is the Solution

Evidence is important, but what evidence-based solution can offer a unique result in your context when the variables cannot be repeated? The answer is none. Evidence-based programs for education are more appropriately “descriptive” (what occurred) versus “prescriptive” (here’s what can be repeated).

A meta-analysis of research that has tracked the implementation of programs and professional development had one core conclusion: it comes down to the quality of educators and the capacity to implement with high efficiency from the business or entity offering the service. This is how this RAND article reads, and one that we support in its approach.

One way to interpret “there is no perfect solution” is to feel hopeless about making the right choice. You can feel a sense of despondency that no matter what you choose as a school leader, your teachers, families, or the collective local education community may not widely adopt the methods. This feeling is warranted, well documented, and discussed in a book by Belinda Harris called Supporting the Emotional Work of School Leaders, which we recommend because of its practical nature and conversational tone.

However, MathTrack Institute’s perspective is the opposite. Because education is a complex system, there are infinite pathways to your desired outcomes (instead of one prescribed pathway), and success is more in your control if you focus on what you can control. No matter what curriculum, programs, and activities you choose, success comes down to implementation by you and your teachers. This is within your control.

Change is Hard and Deserves Respect

The work that mathematics educators are expected to do to align more closely with the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) Principles and Standards (which all state standards are based upon) demands substantial skill. These skills, like utilizing new curricular materials and new activities, opening their classrooms to broader mathematical student participation, and providing students with more authentic mathematics experiences, require significant pedagogical skills and vast mathematics for teaching skills (Hill & Deborah Loewenberg Ball, 2004).

The gap between the research-based or evidence-based intent of a new program, service, or curriculum and the enactment of it must be as small as possible to increase the probability of success. This only comes from the buy-in of your educators and proper support and training for them to develop these capacities while simultaneously seeing a positive feedback loop for their efforts. An evidence-based or research-based program can only benefit student outcomes if it is enacted with knowledge and confidence. This is especially true if your team hasn’t been supported in appreciating mathematical reasoning, fully understanding the meaning of mathematical ideas and procedures, and grasping productive embodied and mathematical mindsets. These things are not typically learned in a traditional mathematics teacher preparation program. They also lack in the traditional preparation for school leaders.

3 Questions to Guide Optimism and Strategy

Suppose the curriculum or programming quality is relatively the same, and implementation is critical. In that case, you can ask yourself a few key questions to help you discover what would be best for your school or learning community.

  1. What is the experience level of your mathematics teaching team? Some programs and curricula require a more rigorous effort for implementation. Having an experienced team does not necessarily equate to a higher ability to assimilate to a new curriculum. Do the training and support that come with the program or that you have available on your team meet the demands required to implement it with high fidelity?
  2. What is the turnover rate for your mathematics educators? Consistency is key to a small gap between enacted and intended programs and interventions. With a constantly changing team, you will need help reaching the bar required for positive outcomes for your students.
  3. Do you have an established talent pipeline for your mathematics team? National Grow Your Own (GYO) organizations and the Federal Department of Education recommend that GYO programs help shape your team's consistency and raise collective skill and expertise to implement evidence-based or research-based programming.


MathTrack Institute's GROWTH framework helps further these notions and shape your thinking about your mathematics strategy. If you, as a school leader, want to engage with MathTrack Institute about your strategy for mathematics education for your school or district, please contact our team. We would happily support you as you work through your strategy and programmatic needs for math teaching in your context. We will also be hosting several virtual town halls, free to join over the next several months, where you can learn more about MathTrack Institute's GROWTH framework and how your team can be the solution you seek.

Back to List Next Article