In Partnership recently spoke with Francisco Villegas, Director of School Transformation, who leads our math team, to get the latest scoop on our new math initiatives in the 2019-20 school year. Here, Francisco discusses new curriculum, his approach to supporting teachers, and a controversial policy in higher education.

What is the Partnership focusing on in math this year?

In the upcoming school year, the Partnership is building a larger math team to support our teachers, implementing new high-quality curriculum, and designing robust professional development to support the implementation of that curriculum.

This year, we have expanded our math team by adding four math coaches who are providing direct support to schools and school leaders. Across our schools, we support 190 elementary teachers who teach math and 90 secondary math teachers. We want to make sure all of those teachers are getting the support they need to be successful. The expansion of our math team means more teachers will get the support they deserve and as a result, more students will get excellent math instruction.

What about instruction?

We are excited to be implementing several new curricular programs, each of which has received the highest ratings from EdReports, an independent nonprofit that reviews curriculum in terms of its alignment to Common Core standards and best practices in the field. At the secondary level, we will be implementing Illustrative Math, one of the highest rated curricular programs in the country.  It is important to remember that there is no silver bullet and no curricular program is perfect. However, equipping our teachers with high-quality materials, professional development to implement it, and ongoing instructional coaching is a big step in the right direction.

Your team spends a lot of time focusing on curriculum implementation and providing professional development around it. Why is that important?

Curriculum is an equity issue and an equity opportunity. Students of color have less access to grade-level curriculum and high-quality instruction and that is a huge issue. The best way we can address this is to put strong, grade-level materials in our teachers’ hands and equip them with the skills they need to implement it effectively. That is a great idea, but it takes a lot of work. It takes time and patience, and it requires us to really invest in our teachers.

When teachers have access to high-quality grade-level curriculum, they don’t have to use their time writing curriculum and, instead, can focus on planning, preparation, and instructional delivery. Over time, they can begin to innovate and adapt the lessons to better meet the needs of their students and make them more culturally relevant.

Why is math so important for our schools and our students?

Math is important for so many reasons, both intrinsic and extrinsic. All human beings will be confronted with problems throughout their lives.  Mathematics is a great vehicle for supporting the development of problem-solving skills. Math helps to develop abstract thinking in a way that other subjects cannot. Through algebra, for example, a letter or variable can represent anything. It becomes a placeholder to decontextualize information and make sense of it mathematically, before putting it back in context.

How does math proficiency empower our students?

Math empowers us to fight for our rights. We want our students to be critical consumers of information. More and more, data and statistics are used to influence people’s decisions. We want our students to think critically about that data, to see flaws in the way it is presented, and make informed decisions.

What role does math play in college completion?

Math is important because students need it to make it to and through college. I do believe college is incredibly important. For the underserved populations we work with, college opens doors for jobs and career opportunities that will help students break themselves out of poverty. But college also expands the way students see the world, offering them ideas and exposure to a world beyond their own.

What is your approach to working with teachers?

At the system level, we often try to quantify and operationalize everything so that we can bring it to scale, and often what gets lost is the human connection. If kids trust you and you build a rapport and an alliance with them, they will bend over backwards not to let you down. In my experience, the same thing happens with teachers. Most teachers want to grow and improve. If they are working with someone they trust and who believes in them, they will open up and allow themselves to be vulnerable. You build an alliance to grow and that is what leads to sustained change. As Theodore Roosevelt put it, “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

How do you think about culturally relevant teaching and how does it relate to math?

Culturally relevant pedagogy is about tapping into things that our students have exposure to or care about, so that they feel connected to their learning. It’s not just about race and ethnicity. It can be about popular culture, current events, the local community, or just drawing on what students are interested in.When teachers have access to high-quality curriculum and the support to implement it, they can use their lessons to empower students with information, while teaching math concepts. For example, the teacher can take a grade-level lesson and keep the core content, but replace the quantities with a data set about incarceration rates or access to healthy food options. In that way, we can empower our students to use mathematics as a tool to understand their world and the equity issues that exist in our society, and empower them with the knowledge and skills to be able to do something about it.

Lastly, we would like to get your thoughts on a much-discussed policy in higher education. The California State University system recently proposed a policy that would require all applicants to take a fourth year of high school math in order to be eligible.  What do you make of this policy? How do you think it will affect equity gaps in math?

I am very much in favor of students taking four years of math, but I am against a requirement for four years of math as a policy. We want students enrolled in high-level math but we do not want to set up a policy where it forces everyone into one-size fits all. Pushing schools to have students take four years of math in high school is good, because it is correlated with college persistence. However, a policy that requires it for admittance to a Cal State only makes it more difficult for students to access college.

Right now, some schools are not necessarily in a place where math instruction is of high quality and students are being prepared and inspired to take four years of math. That is the issue we need to address. We don’t need to create policies that create barriers for college access. We need to create policies to ensure that our students are being supported to be successful in math and our teachers are being supported with the knowledge, understanding, and skills to help them get there.