Implementing Change in School Districts: One District’s Successful Transition
In February 2021, Walch interviewed two mathematics department chairs from Community High School District (CSD) 99 in Downers Grove, Ill.: Jon Heldmann of North High Sc
hool and Jacob Giblin of South High School.
CSD99 is a high-performing district in the suburbs of Chicago. As a result of a successful transition from the Traditional Pathway for high school mathematics to the Integrated Pathway, it has become an example for other districts in the area and around the country that seek to make a similar change.
A number of districts and states across the U.S. have tried to transition to the Integrated Pathway in recent years. Some, such as West Virginia and Georgia, have partially pulled back after pushback from the community and limited success.
We believe that CSD’s experience contains lessons for school systems that seek to implement substantive change. Clearly, this isn’t for everyone; we believe that for many, however, it can set them on the road to improved student learning and help their students achieve a more profound understanding of important math concepts and skills which will serve them well over their lifetimes.
Jon, the Mathematics Department Chair from North High School, is in his 21st year at Downers Grove North. He has been a department chair for 15 years. Jacob, the Mathematics Department Chair from South High School, has over 18 years of teaching experience. He started in East Aurora, joined Downers Grove over 14 years ago, and is now in his fifth year as the math department chair at Downers Grove South.
Naturally, as Jon and Jacob set out on this process, they had some concerns. As in any unproven new initiative, they worried first and foremost whether it would work, and whether they would be given the time they needed to prove it and iron out the kinks. They didn’t want to rush a judgement and realized that it would take time.
With these worries, the natural question was: why take the risk? Why pursue the transition in the first place? They were a high-performing district before the change, but after careful analysis, they felt that this would help them reach even more students than they were at the time. They felt that things had become a bit stale and stuck in traditional instructional practices. A careful analysis of the Common Core Standards of Mathematics requirements indicated that they would make changes to their curriculum guides/maps in any case, and they felt it would be easier to get people to “let go of the old stuff” if they started with a brand-new design model and resources.
As classroom teachers, they wanted to ensure that they would not put too much on their team’s plates. With that concern in mind, they sought to discover ways in which they could adjust multiple courses at once. The district was understandably a bit wary, as prior reforms (e.g., NCLB) weren’t adequately supported.
What were some of the key lessons they learned? With the benefit of eight years of experience teaching integrated math, here are some of the highlights, in no particular order.
Keep the Community Involved
Parents of Downers Grove students, and the community at large, are generally informed and involved in the school system. They take a great deal of pride in it.
Math leadership personnel were careful to fully communicate and front-run anticipated concerns. During the transition, they found that a monthly (Year 1) then quarterly (Year 2–3) parent and community newsletter for each course was key. These were also shared with feeder schools. Newsletters helped keep everyone informed of changes and reassured them that, for instance, this wasn’t the much-maligned new math. Details matter, and communication must be open and consistent; otherwise cracks in foundation will grow and the inevitable transitional challenges will lead to resistance.
Parents of students in honors courses, for example, were quite worried. In the first year of the transition, CSD99 had to reduce the number of kids who got accepted in honors courses and the accelerated pathway. They were quickly added back as the transition took place, and by and large folks understood.
As a high school district, it was also critical to get feeder schools (teachers and administrators) on board and involved in the planning. Feeder schools switched to Math 1 from Algebra 1, for example, and since they were “in the room” throughout planning, their concerns could be addressed. This ensured a smoother transition. Simply having to describe what Math 1 is as opposed to Algebra 1 can be challenging. Consistent, firm communication is key.
Work with Your Teachers from the Outset
Change was mapped out and incremental, and district leadership set up processes and committees to ensure teacher input was incorporated. The district provided teachers with flexible, supportive resources from Walch and also invested in coaches to facilitate and train.
CSD99 thought carefully about who would teach Integrated Math courses in the first year of the transition. They saw how people reacted formally and informally in the planning process, and chose those who would be most effective in transitional support and most open to a new approach.
It’s important to have an adequate group of teachers who are professionally curious, eager for ways to improve, flexible, and open to change. Teachers are naturally critical, or even the best curriculum won’t make a difference without support. Veteran teachers can be tougher to convince, but in the end they can be most effective in the change.
As teachers and department chairs, Jon and Jacob (and his predecessor) took on teaching each new course in the first year of implementation. They tried to model and assist others living through all the newness of the change. They then identified several strong teachers who were “on board” with the integrated model and program and asked them to serve as team leaders for years two and three. This turned out to be very effective in getting up to speed with lesson planning, common assessments, and other key factors in the change.
Some of the toughest teachers to convince were those who taught accelerated and gifted students. They didn’t see as much of an opportunity to improve in middle/feeder schools and high schools. When they saw how well implementation was going and understood that they would get lots of support, however, they became more comfortable with the change and soon bought in.
Curriculum change is very important. It’s not only a signal that “change is in the air”; it also shows teachers that you are serious about supporting them in the transition. It involves more than simply slapping a new label on the same old wraparound teacher guides and student workbooks. Walch’s resources were problem-based—that’s sort of the minimum requirement—but they were also more flexible and adaptive than traditional scripted texts. They provided ample support for each topic so that it was handy when teachers needed it. Without quality resources, it’s just too overwhelming: teachers will revert to their old resources because they don’t have the time to create what’s needed.
CSD99 found that Walch was sufficiently unique in layout and content approach to force teachers to do things differently. This was good, but at first it posed a challenge. It took teachers away from file drawers of worksheets and forced them to use the new resources. The fact that Walch was built around the integrated pathway from the outset, and not simply reshuffled, was critical to inspiring confidence.
If you have high teacher turnover, or if your teachers struggle or are unhappy, you need an even stronger commitment and investment in coaching. Otherwise, the transition will never succeed. The easiest solution is to revert to the old system as soon as there is any dissension or indication of a potential problem. You need to ensure you can give any change time. On the other hand, changing to the Integrated Pathway should serve as a catalyst and framework to reset and elevate expectations and performance and get everyone out of their ruts. Just don’t short-change your investment in the process.
For example, it was clear that as department chairs, Jon and Jacob would not have sufficient capacity to provide adequate support. Therefore, CSD99 made the investment to release a few teachers in each building from a class or two so that they could serve as peer coaches. In that capacity, they worked with other teachers to implement the adopted Walch program as well as create initial drafts of common assessments so that every teacher did not carry all of that burden themselves.
Have Other Supports and Resources in Place
Every school district is different—what works for one will surely not work for all. That said, here are some of the other key observations:
The district needs to be committed at all levels of leadership. It might help if leadership came up through instruction, but in any case, it is very important that support is consistent and unwavering. Principals and superintendents will get calls and questions. They need to be fully informed, up-to-date, and unwavering.
Prior to Year 1, strive to prioritize every possible minute of department meetings and PLCs to plan for a common implementation. During Year 1 of a course, debrief and network at regular intervals about the new curriculum and new program materials.
Make sure to work with school counselors, as well. They need to learn how to talk to colleges, coaches, and more about what course boxes to check so that your students are fairly represented when filling out college applications. Pretty soon, though, this becomes second nature.
Tolerate failure and learn from it. Not everything is going to go well—it never does! In the end, your chances of success are greatly improved with a supportive, tolerant culture that welcomes mistakes and learns from them. It’s not that you can’t be purposeful and demand the best; it’s more that you should work together to persevere and solve problems. A pretty good habit to teach your students, too! As a matter of fact, Jon and Jacob strongly recommend that, at least initially, you decouple teacher evaluation from student performance to reduce the risk that they fall back on the “tried and true.”
No matter what you do, some teachers won’t feel valued. It’s important to be patient, listen to their concerns, and continue to encourage them. You’ve got to fight the “grade-is-the-key” mentality while you implement “conceptual-understanding-is-now-being-emphasized-more” as teachers and students get used to what’s needed for a deeper and more appreciative understanding of mathematics.
When times get tough, teachers and students need to know that the change is not why they are struggling (there are always struggles), and that over time, they will succeed.
A Final Thought
If you don’t truly believe this is the right thing to do, then don’t do it. Once you get into it and start to deal with the naysayers and complaints, you have to show strong and genuine conviction.
Now that we are eight years into our transition, we still don’t have a great answer for transfer students that came partway through the year from a traditional curriculum model school. That’s a challenge yet to be overcome.
Overall, though, things are highly positive. Some students were taking watered-down remedial courses, and now all students get exposed to the same, more-rigorous work. All students benefit from a more-connected, less-abstract model of learning.
CSD99’s scores have also jumped. North High School has realized an 88.4% to a 96.9 % pass rate on AP calculus, and has stayed in that range ever since the first year of implementation.
At South High, less than 15% of the students that enrolled in Advanced Algebra 200 met standards on the state-administered ACT in the two years prior to the transition. In the last three pre-COVID-19 years, 18%, 27%, and 25% of these students (now enrolled in Math 3) respectively met the standards on the state-administered SAT. In addition, Juniors that exceeded standards in South’s traditional precalculus class went from 52% and 56% prior to the change to the integrated math model, to 70% and 69% in the last two years.
At all levels, learning continues to improve due to the hard work of CSD99’s community, students, and teachers. The district receives calls and visits from other districts that have seen CSD99’s experience and success. They also seem interested in switching. We hope that these others will have similar success.