Madison County teachers observe students participating in a formative assessment lesson (FAL) in Amanda Bailey’s 3rd-grade classroom at Shannon Johnson Elementary School (Madison County). Through observing teachers using an FAL, Madison County mathematics educators learned that productive struggle can be a good thing. Submitted photo by Mendy Mills

Madison County teachers observe students participating in a formative assessment lesson (FAL) in Amanda Bailey’s 3rd-grade classroom at Shannon Johnson Elementary School (Madison County). Through observing teachers using an FAL, Madison County mathematics educators learned that productive struggle can be a good thing.
Submitted photo by Mendy Mills

“The job-embedded professional development that we are doing in Madison County with the Math Design Collaborative is true hands-on learning for teachers and it is so much more valuable to observe an actual lesson than traditional professional development.”

– Donna New, 2nd-grade teacher

By Mendy Mills

“What can we do to improve mathematics instruction and achievement in our schools?” That’s the question that leadership and teachers have been asking in Madison County.

Data indicated that we needed to increase our focus on mathematics and develop an implementation plan that would lead to districtwide improvement in mathematics. In the fall of 2014, the district put together a group of district leaders and math teacher leaders from all 17 schools to develop the mathematics improvement plan.

The Math Task Force began spending countless hours deconstructing standards, creating units, developing common assessments and providing professional development. We knew that something else was still needed, so we began looking for additional mathematics professional learning that was proven to improve teacher practice and increase student achievement. After looking at several options, our task force decided that the work of the Math Design Collaborative (MDC) would be a great fit for Madison County teachers and students.

Headshot of Reneé Yates

Reneé Yates

In January of 2016, district leadership meet with Reneé­ Yates, Math Design Collaborative state support instructional specialist, to develop a plan for training all teachers K-12 in MDC. The MDC is an instructional framework for implanting the Kentucky Academic Standards for Mathematics and improving teacher effectiveness by design. With 17 schools and approximately 180 math teachers, we knew getting everyone trained and on board would not be an easy undertaking.

The plan started with a full day of professional learning for teachers in grades 3 through high school. Teachers reviewed the progression of the standards, the five steps of formative assessment and experienced working through a formative assessment lesson (FAL). The best part of the MDC professional development was yet to come.

Later in the spring semester, all teachers in grades 3-12 participated in a follow-up day. One day was focused on grades 3-5 and the other on middle and high school. The coordination of these follow-up days was quite challenging. Arrangements had to be made for classroom space, scheduling, substitutes and lunch.

Teachers attended a half-day session during which they observed a classroom teacher from their grade level implementing a FAL with students. The formative assessment lessons are intended to support teachers in formative assessment and develop students’ understanding of key mathematical ideas and applications.

The session started with the group talking with the teacher about how they prepared for the lesson and analyzing the student work from the pre-assessment. The group discussed the student misconceptions and what to expect while observing the lesson. Then it was time to observe the teacher conducting a formative assessment lesson with her students.

Our Madison County teachers were able to see a complete FAL in action. They observed how students had that productive struggle with mathematics and how they worked through their misconceptions to solve the problems. Teachers got to see how students performed when they were paired with another student of similar ability and common misconceptions based on the pre-assessment.

“This makes the FAL more concrete and authentic. Now I see what I will need to do in my own classroom.”

– Dawn Thornbury, 4th-grade teacher

After the lesson, teachers had the opportunity to debrief and discuss what they observed. Some great conversations were held with all grade levels. Several “Aha!” moments came from this discussion time, including:

  • It’s OK for students to participate in a task that is difficult. They need to be challenged.
  • We have to make ourselves step back and let our students struggle. Most of the time we are too quick to jump in and help.
  • Surprisingly, our students can figure out how to solve difficult problems.
  • It actually works to pair students together based on common misconceptions. Maybe it’s even better than putting a high student with a low student.

Professional learning with MDC for kindergarten, 1st and 2ndgrade teachers took place during the summer of 2016. This group of teachers participated in the first follow-up day in September.

Madison County mathematics teachers from all grade levels participated in a second job-embedded professional learning follow-up day in the fall of 2016. Again, teachers observed a FAL in action.

“We can do this, having the opportunity to observe a lesson in action has been such a valuable learning experience.”

– Jillian Fichetola, kindergarten teacher

It’s exciting to see that our district has 180 mathematics teachers trained in the process of the Math Design Collaborative. No one was missed. We have observed 20 formative assessment lessons in action.

“After watching students work through the formative assessment lesson I truly understand what to do. I wish we had a FAL for all of our math units. We might just have to create some of our own”

– Karen Bickett, 3rd-grade teacher

What’s next? In Madison County, we have matched the existing formative assessment lessons to our district math units. This gives teachers a guide to where the lessons best fit into the curriculum. District leadership has set the expectation that teachers do the FAL lessons with their students. Principals are to hold the teachers accountable and provide support. The greatest impact of the demonstration lessons is that they all left feeling empowered and excited about doing the lessons with their own students.

What does Madison County really hope happens from our involvement with MDC?

  • We envision teachers seeing the valuable learning experience that students receive from having that productive struggle of a FAL lesson.
  • Teachers will start to use the strategies from the formative assessment lessons with other tasks in their classroom.
  • Students will become better problem solvers and learn to persevere through difficult task.
  • Teachers will continue the discussion and collaboration that took place during the demonstration lessons.
  • Madison County teachers will develop additional FAL-type lessons to be shared with colleagues.

As the district instructional supervisor, I have asked teachers to invite me to their classroom when they are conducting a formative assessment lesson. I’m excited about seeing many different lessons in action across our schools in Madison County. More importantly, we are all excited to see how MDC impacts our teacher practice and student achievement in mathematics.


Mendy Mills

Mendy Mills

Mendy Mills serves as the instructional supervisor for Madison County schools. She is a former elementary principal and middle school mathematics teacher with 26 years’ experience. Reneé Yates, a National Board certified teacher, provides MDC statewide support for the Kentucky Department of Education.