Thoughts on the Back-to-School Problem

By William McCallum

One of the consolations in these difficult times has been tweets and Youtube videos of parents discovering just what it takes to be a teacher. Maybe it takes a crisis like this to restore the respect that teachers deserve. There is no doubt that when schools reopen teachers will face a formidable back-to-school problem: entire classes of students returning with months of lost learning from the previous year. And there is no doubt in my mind that teachers are up to this challenge. They have always had to face this problem on a small scale; hopeful parents will be looking up to them to solve it for all. 

At Illustrative Mathematics we have been thinking hard about the back-to-school problem, and will be sharing our ideas in more detail over the coming weeks. Here are a couple of initial thoughts. 

First, the coherence of the standards helps. Because the standards follow a progression of concepts and procedures across grade levels, they tell the story of mathematics. If you know the story then you know how to work with someone who has missed part of it. You know the characters they won’t have heard of, and when to give a sketch to introduce those characters. You also know what you can leave out or summarize. You don’t have to go back to where the story left off and go through it all over again. Coherent curriculum materials such as IM K–12 Math can be coherently adapted to the current crisis. 

Second, the top priority for returning students will be their emotional well-being, not catching up on last year’s mathematics. We want to get all the students in the class working together, to invite all learners back to mathematics in a way that is welcoming and focused on building a mathematics learning community. In our curriculum we designed the first unit of each year to be engaging and provide an on-ramp to the work of the current grade based on concepts from the previous grade, so that students have a chance to find their feet and enjoy their learning. It does not focus on the major work of the grade but has a built-in review of skills, so that teachers have a chance to observe what needs to be shored up from the previous year without feeling the pressure of high-stakes material. This approach will be more valuable than ever when most students are anxious about what is to come.

There may be other problems to solve beyond the back-to-school problem. It may be that closures will continue into the fall and we have to provide support for families and teachers with students learning from home. It’s not going to be easy, but teachers will be on the front lines solving problems and we will be there to help. And the solutions will stand us in good stead for the normal times, when they return.

William McCallum

Bill McCallum, founder of Illustrative Mathematics, is a University Distinguished Professor of Mathematics at the University of Arizona. He has worked in both mathematics research, in the area of number theory and arithmetical algebraic geometry, and mathematics education, writing textbooks and advising researchers and policy makers. He is a founding member of the Harvard Calculus Consortium and lead author of its college algebra and multivariable calculus texts. In 2009–2010 he was one of the lead writers for the Common Core State Standards in Mathematics. He holds a Ph. D. in Mathematics from Harvard University and a B.Sc. from the University of New South Wales.