Interview with the new Director of Mathematics at the School District of Philadelphia, Joshua Taton

Posted on October 21, 2016

Caitlin: Tell us a little about yourself. How did you get involved in math education?

Josh: I think I’ve always had a passion for mathematics and education! My parents are “mathy” and curious people: my mom has a degree in mathematics, in fact, and used to solve puzzles and problems with me when I was young. And my dad is a CPA with a mind for facts-and-figures. I also had wonderful public school teachers throughout my K-12 education, who placed a strong emphasis on problem-solving and the creative aspects of mathematics. In college, I fueled these interests by earning a degree in mathematics and concentrating on so-called artistic aspects, like “fractals” (a natural phenomenon or a mathematical set that exhibits a repeating pattern that displays at every scale). After college, I briefly worked in human resources consulting, but I couldn’t get away from teaching and learning—spending my after-work time volunteering as a math tutor.

When I changed careers and became a teacher, I had the unique opportunity to teach 5th – 8th grade and Calculus—all in the same day at the same K-12 school! This was quite a challenge, moving between different grade levels, but it was a great learning opportunity. I was able to develop a deep appreciation for the importance of learning trajectories, which I’ve carried with me in my research and in my current work. Teaching all those grade-levels also presented a great opportunity to connect with the same students over the years.

Most recently, I was at the University of Pennsylvania, working on my Ph.D. in mathematics education. I’ve taught graduate-level courses and conducted, extensively, professional development workshops for teachers. I love working with and learning from teachers! It’s a great privilege to be invited into teachers’ classrooms, to see all the amazing work they do.

Caitlin: How did you end up at The School District of Philadelphia?

Josh: Through my work, I got to know the math education landscape and many K-12 teachers, as well as many other people involved in math education, here in Philadelphia. This includes the late Don McKinney from the Math + Science Coalition of the Philadelphia Education Fund. Don and a colleague at Swarthmore College, Aimee Johnson, recommended that I participate in a committee of external partners, to give feedback to the School District on their strategic plan for mathematics. The goal was to provide guidance on instructional resources and models. Don and Aimee knew me from my work in the Philadelphia Area Math Teacher’s Circle. I have always wanted to support the District in some way, shape, or form. And through my work with this committee, I learned about the opportunity during the spring, and I applied to become the Director. I’m thrilled to now be a part of the team in the Office of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment—they are an incredibly talented, hardworking bunch with a laser-like focus on supporting students and schools.

Caitlin: What have you been doing since you started as the Director of Mathematics at the School District of Philadelphia?

Josh: I started in June and it was a trial by fire! Right away, I helped to kick-off our new, summer professional development initiative, the MathCounts Institute. We invited approximately 1,000 teachers and their principals from 75-or so schools (or about one-third of all the district schools). Next year, and the year after that, we will invite the remaining schools, as part of a three-year, phase-in plan.

The MathCounts Institute consists of five-days of professional development workshops in teaching and learning math–with an additional two days for Math Leads from each school. (As part of the initiative, each school now has an identified lead teacher in mathematics, who can serve as an additional support with regard to instruction, assessments, coaching, and professional development, and as a liaison between our office and the schools.) Each day of Institute began with a plenary speaker. This year’s group was amazing! Our invited speakers were: NASA astronaut, Jose Hernandez, the distinguished sociologist and social commentator, Pedro Noguera, National Director of PD for The Algebra Project, Bill Crombie, noted author and Director of Mathematics at Discovery Education, Patrick Vennebush, and Senior Academic Officer at Carnegie Learning, Sandy Finocchi. Each of these speakers spoke enthusiastically about valuing the inherent mathematical abilities of students, how to engage students in discovery–instead of giving all the guidance upfront–and even how to incorporate humor into math.

Another key component of the Institute was a reflection at the end of each day. Principals and Math Leads facilitated discussions with their math teams about what they were learning each day. There was a lot of positive energy during these discussions. In fact, the Institute ended on the Friday before the Fourth of July weekend, and I had to kick teachers out at the end of the day because their conversations kept on going! I was surprised there wasn’t a rush to beat holiday shore traffic, but, regardless, I am definitely excited to build on this momentum!

Caitlin: What are your priorities for math education in the District as we begin a new school year?

Josh: First, I have to say that, as the Director of Mathematics, I am at the bottom of the leadership pyramid. My aim is to support principals and teachers, who, in turn, work to support the students.

Our main priority, over the course of the summer and into the early fall, has been to align the curriculum and state standards with the new instructional resources that the District purchased for both math and English Language Arts. We are very excited to have these new resources available for teachers and students! This alignment work has involved a dizzying set of tasks—creating documents with suggested pathways through the new resources; helping teachers navigate the materials while meeting obligations on District and state assessments; setting up the websites that show how standards can be met in a variety of ways; offering professional development on the new materials; setting up access to the online components; and answering principals’ and teachers’ questions. I’ve loved being a part of this process—it’s such a unique opportunity for a District of this size to be rolling-out all of these new tools at once. I owe a huge debt of gratitude in this work to Jackie Bush-Campbell, a 41-year veteran teacher and educator in the District, who is a Curriculum Specialist on our team. (We are in the process of hiring two more Curriculum Specialists, to support this ongoing curriculum work, and who will be essential resources for principals and teachers.)

Moving forward, we have an overarching goal of putting even more emphasis on teaching for understanding. Research has shown that, across the U.S., mathematics is often taught by focusing almost exclusively on skills. I’m not saying that skills, and what we often call procedural fluency, are unimportant. But, rather, procedural fluency, necessarily, must be supported by conceptual understanding and the ability for students to make connections across mathematical topics and between mathematics and their real lives. Otherwise, students will not become the flexible problem-solvers and creative thinkers in mathematics that we want them to be. To be ready for the jobs of the future—most of which haven’t been invented yet—today’s students need critical analysis, quantitative reasoning, problem-solving skills, including the ability to precisely define and model real-world challenges. Moreover, our complex, democratic society also needs a critical citizenry with the ability to reason thoughtfully about data, to marshal technology tools in effective ways, to justify logical claims, and the like. These are mathematical skill-sets.

In Philadelphia, we are offering teachers additional professional development opportunities, additional web-based resources and other tools, and a coherent vision that is built around a more complex understanding of student thinking. We find that when students’ mathematical work is evaluated–not according to whether or not they got answers “right” or “wrong,” but, instead–according to what aspects of their work make mathematical sense and what aspects can be reshaped, then students become more engaged by and achieve more in mathematics. We are working to uncover the “big ideas” in mathematics, to see the connections and the storylines across ideas, instead of focusing merely on accumulating a set of rote techniques.

Related to this overall vision is another initiative in Algebra I Readiness. In this initiative, we are offering resources and working to help students become successful in Algebra I, whenever they are ready to take it. The hope, also, is that by helping students to develop stronger algebraic reasoning abilities within the current curriculum, more students will want to and can succeed in 8th Grade Algebra I. Note that this is decidedly not about teaching Algebra I skills earlier, but about laying the foundation for the type of reasoning that algebra requires. We are encouraging teachers to use a blended learning model, in which formal face-to-face instruction is combined with delivery of instruction through multiple modes; this includes digital and online media, wherein students have control over the pace and pathways of their own learning. Some forty schools are participating in the first two cohorts of this initiative in some way, and their teachers have received professional development and additional tools, like carts of Chromebooks. In addition, each school will be utilizing one of two adaptive-learning online programs, Redbird Learning or Think Through Math, both of which vetted over a lengthy process and which schools were allowed to select. We are hoping these tools will enable teachers to target learning to a student’s individual needs, scaffold additional supports on particular pre-requisite ideas, and enrich the learning of students already at grade level. Finally, in general, when it comes to teachers’ and principals’ professional development, we want to value teachers and principals and their professional knowledge of teaching. We are hoping to offer more varied types of professional development that engage with teachers as learners and collaborate with them as experts, allowing teachers to learn from each other, as well. Offering micro-credentials, to show the many ways teachers have expertise, will likely be a part of this effort. We also want to provide teachers with tools to participate more regularly with external resources and community partners.

Caitlin: You mentioned this earlier: what is the Philadelphia Area Math Teacher’s Circle (PAMTC)?

Josh: The PAMTC works to build a social and professional community of elementary and secondary teachers of mathematics in the Philadelphia area. For the past 5 years, the PAMTC has hosted monthly “mathy” gatherings, usually the third Tuesday of each month of the school year from 5:00 – 7:00 pm. The PAMTC provides great food and camaraderie, materials, door prizes, and free parking! Folks are welcome to come and go as they please; there are no membership dues or attendance requirements. Participants work collaboratively on a math “problem of the month,” as they eat and socialize. This process helps the teachers to build a stronger sense of efficacy with problem-solving techniques and in developing an identity as a problem-solver, themselves.  This work aims to enhance teachers’ relationship with mathematics as a discipline, foster an appreciation of math in and outside of the classroom, and provide opportunities for teachers to network with others throughout the School District of Philadelphia and other surrounding districts. We encourage anyone teaching mathematics in the Philadelphia area, no matter how comfortable and confident with mathematics, to visit!

Caitlin: Speaking of collaboration, how can our area colleges and universities partner with the School District in regard to math education?

Josh: I think the PAMTC is a great model. I think of it as a team—comprised of mathematics experts and education experts, including our teachers—coming together to learn from one another and to grow professionally. Broadly speaking, we have a number of projects, this year and every year, that involve college and university partners. We engage with scholars and researchers, regularly, who are great thought partners for helping us move forward, but who also learn from our wonderful teachers and what they do. Among many other things, they develop an appreciation of the complexity and scale of the District, and we learn about the direction of education research. We are always looking to develop such projective working relationships with committed partners.

Colleges and universities are also great assets in offering resources and tools for instructional leaders; such tools, we feel, can help increase levels of engagement, critical thinking, and the use of multi-modal forms of expression, such as writing and drawing about math. Colleges and universities certainly assist us with providing high-quality professional development for teachers and instructional leaders. Generally, too, we work very hard to draw on, and communicate about, the knowledge that researchers have learned about schooling—particularly in building collaborative classrooms that embrace a deeper understanding of students’ thinking and that help elevate student voices to be more present in the classroom. At the end of the day that’s what it’s about—it’s about valuing students: every student should be regarded as a capable mathematician.

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