Skip to main content

Designing Learning Organizations for Instructional Improvement inMathematics


A substantial body of research reveals that improving mathematics instruction on a large scale is not merely an issue of teacher professional development, but also has to be framed as a problem for schools and districts as a whole. The primary goal of the project is to investigate, test, and refine a set of conjectures about support structures in schools and districts that will enhance the impact of professional development on mathematics teachers' instructional practices and student achievement. These support structures include teacher learning communities and professional networks, a shared school-wide vision for quality mathematics instruction, accountability of both teachers and instructional leaders to the achievement of this shared vision, the emergence of teachers as instructional leaders, teachers' access to key resources such as time for collaboration, and depth of leaders' understanding of the instructional program and the challenges of using it effectively.

We will test our conjectures about the role of these support structures in four urban school districts that have partnered with the University of Pittsburgh's Institute for Learning (IFL) to implement comprehensive improvement plans for middle school mathematics. We will collect successive rounds of both qualitative and quantitative data to document the support structures in the schools and districts, teachers' instructional practices, the professional development activities in which they participate, school and district instructional leadership practices, and student achievement. After each round of data collection, we will share the results with IFL and district personnel, and will collaborate with them to identify any adjustments that might make the districts' improvement plans more effective. The overall product of the research will be a content-specific framework for guiding, monitoring, and assessing school and district-wide improvement in mathematics. This improvement framework will identify the support structures that our findings document are important, explain why they are important, clarify how they are interrelated, and draw on our analyses of the four districts to illustrate how they can be developed.

The project has intellectual merit because the improvement framework will bridge two largely unrelated lines of research on teacher change. One of these lines of research is concerned with how changes in the structural features of schools can result in changes in classroom instructional practices. The second body of scholarship focuses on the role of professional development in supporting teachers' improvement of their instructional practices. The framework will transcend this dichotomy by supporting a new genre of research in which organizational design is at the service of large-scale teacher development efforts in mathematics education. In this genre of research, district-wide improvement efforts constitute the context for the generation of useful knowledge about the relation between the institutional settings in which teachers work, the instructional practices that they develop in those settings, and their students' mathematical learning.

The broad impact of the project stems from the utility of the improvement framework in guiding the development of new support structures that enhance the effectiveness of professional development in mathematics. Teacher developers frequently "fly blind" with limited initial knowledge of needed support structures. The framework will enable them to document the institutional settings in which the teachers are working, anticipate needed support structures, and plan strategically for their development. The framework will therefore add value to large-scale teacher development efforts at a relatively modest cost.