• February 15

Teaching What Really Matters In Math

  • David Deatherage, Dillon Ward, Katie Abrams (McNickle)

Pandemic-related disruptions in teaching and learning have affected students and schools across the globe, and Uncommon Schools is no exception. Like national trends, our students were hardest hit in mathematics. Over the past two years, we seized the opportunity to step back and consider our vision for math instruction, while staying true to our mission to prepare all students to graduate from college and achieve their dreams. 

Keep reading to discover how we created a vision for math instruction across grades 5 through 12, along with concrete examples of the ways in which that vision guides instructional supports and practices today.

A Three-Part Process to Create a Vision for 5-12 Math Instruction

Step 1: Data Review

Pandemic-related learning losses prompted an unprecedented shift in instructional approaches for many schools. In an effort to quickly close gaps in learning, we noticed many teachers moved away from teaching conceptual math toward teaching math procedurally. This represented a significant departure from our long-held beliefs about the value of conceptual math. 

Subsequent reviews of student data brought this challenge to the surface, and proved that a procedural approach wasn’t aligned with the rigor of our college-prep mission and does not contribute to deep, enduring understanding of mathematics. We know the impact of this is fewer students pursuing STEM related fields, and more importantly, fewer students developing a love of mathematics.  

We had to ask ourselves the hard question: why wasn’t our significant investment of time and effort leading to accelerated results in math? Confronting the gap between our intentions and reality actually helped us find a better way forward.  

Step 2: External Inspection

Following our internal reflections, we brought in a team of highly qualified instructional leaders from across the globe to conduct an external inspection. The inspection team spent two days visiting a number of our schools, observing classes and whole-school moments, reviewing videos, leadership meetings, and interviewing members of the school. At the end of the day, the team provided in-depth feedback on our cultural and instructional practices. The inspection helped us to uncover another important way in which our instructional approach could be better aligned with our mission: teacher preparation. During the pandemic, many schools saw long-standing challenges with teacher retention and teacher shortages worsened. 

We believe these staffing challenges also contributed to the shift toward procedural math. Without intentional development, teachers new to the profession, especially new to teaching math, were more focused on teaching specific strategies, like an overemphasis on algorithms, rather than the conceptual understanding underneath that lead to a deeper, more enduring understanding. While a focus on specific strategies is how many of us learned math, this approach is limiting and can actually hinder student exploration and thinking. 

Our external inspection helped us to clarify that a return to teaching conceptual math would require additional professional learning as well as clearly articulated frameworks to support planning and implementation. 

Step 3: Internal Working Group

Armed with the results of our data review and external inspection, we formed a working group of 24 educators from a variety of roles, from teacher to instructional leader to Chief SchoolsOfficer. 

Over most of the 2022-23 academic year, our working group was charged with articulating a vision for 5-12 math instruction that would take into account our overarching mission and our beliefs about what our students deserve. The working group relied on John Kotter’s book “Leading Change.” The excerpt featured here may prove to be a helpful resource for any school, district, or network looking to create a vision statement of their own.

In addition, the working group identified core values that would guide how we plan and implement teacher preparation, lesson and unit planning, and day-to-day instruction. In addition, we created a framework that would help all teachers, including those who are new to the profession or new to teaching math at Uncommon, implement the vision and core values. The framework identifies teacher actions and student actions that represent successful execution. 

By articulating this vision and related teacher and student actions, we could document and share examples of teaching and learning that are aligned with these intentions and frameworks and thereby reinforce what we’re looking for in classroom interactions. One of our working group members and current regional superintendent of instruction, Denarius Frazier, contributed a trigonometry lesson video that reflects our vision and core values in action.

Putting It Together

  1. Data Review – bravely take an unflinching look at how successfully your current vision and implementation achieves your goals
  2. External Inspection – if possible, engage independent reviewers to help you identify anything you’ve missed and connect with helpful resources
  3. Working Group – allow for members of your team to invest time in applying what you’ve learned to the formation of a new vision, core values, and frameworks for implementation



David Deatherage
Director, Leadership Development

David Deatherage

David has spent over a decade teaching, leading, and learning in the pursuit of an excellent education for all children. He has been with Uncommon for 8 years, holding many different roles throughout his tenure, and currently serves as the Director of Leadership Development. Prior to joining Uncommon Schools, David worked and led in schools across Harlem and was a TFA Corp Member in New York.

Director of Math for High School, Curriculum and Assessment Team

Dillon Ward

Dillon Ward is in his 7th year at Uncommon. This year, he ascended to the role of Director of Math for High School Curriculum and Assessments. Prior to this, at Uncommon’s Lincoln Park High School, his tenure included roles such as Principal Fellow, STEM Dean of Curriculum and Instruction, Mathematics Department Chair and teacher, Instructional Leader and 11th Grade Team Leader. He studied Neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University.


Director of Middle School Math, Curriculum & Assessment Team

Katie Abrams (McNickle)

Katie Abrams (McNickle) is in her 15th year at Uncommon, where she currently serves as the Director of MS Math on the Curriculum & Assessment Team. Prior to this role, she was a Dean of Curriculum and Instruction and a 7th Grade Math Teacher at North Star Academy in Newark, NJ. She studied Management Science at MIT.