NCTM 2013 Denver: Superfine's et al's Supporting Underprepared Algebra Students: Results from a Design-Based Research Program

Research Presession - Tuesday, April 16, 1:00 pm

Alison Castro Superfine - Learning Sciences Research Institute, University of Illinois at Chicago
James Lynn - Learning Sciences Research Institute, University of Illinois at Chicago
Timothy Stoelinga - Learning Sciences Research Institute, University of Illinois at Chicago
Mara Martinez - Learning Sciences Research Institute, University of Illinois at Chicago
Cynthia Schneider - Charles A. Dana Center, University of Texas at Austin
Diane Briars - Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Discussant: Phil Daro, Public Forum on School Accountability, San Francisco

Algebra 1 continues to be a make-or-break-it course for many high school students. Some 75% of students who fail Algebra 1 will also fail on a 2nd attempt, or to get them through they will be placed into a pseudo-algebra course that grants credit without the rigor and support.

This project arose from the need to find a different way to deal with struggling algebra students. With NSF, Chicago Community Trust, and Gates Foundation funding, this group worked as a design team consisting of 25 researchers, curriculum developers, and practitioners to develop and oversee an intensified algebra program where students take algebra two periods each day. The key partner was the Dana Center at Texas at Austin, and you can find the project website at Much of what was described in the presentation can be found in the key design features and course and lesson structure.

Themes from the literature

The model for curriculum selection is one that I believe is quickly becoming familiar. Tasks are rated by cognitive demand (Stein, Smith, Henningsen, & SIlver, 2009) and teachers are evaluated on how they implement the task, including the "launch" (I'm guessing they're using the work of Jackson, Shahan, Gibbons, & Cobb, 2012) and investigation and debrief phases of the lesson.

As design research, revisions are frequently made and evaluated. This group placed a focus on fidelity, or the extent to which practice follows the intent of the curriculum. Making a total of 58 observations of five teachers in three schools, the group looked for ways they could better support teachers' enactment of tasks with high cognitive demand.

Alison Castro Superfine presenting

Two trends stood out to the researchers. First, they were far more likely to see teachers explain ideas instead of students. Also, use of the AgileMind technology (which was part of the curriculum) varied significantly across the teachers.

While the project and revision process is ongoing, there are signs of positive results. On problems related to linear functions, students in the project showed significant growth, although the percentage correct on these problems still hovered around 50%.

As for how the research has informed the design process, the group observed three challenges: (a) the needs and time cycles of curriculum developers and researchers, (b) working in settings of implementation, and (c) contributing to theories of practice. This group appeared to be applying Gravemeijer's (2004) concept of a local instruction theory to inform their design process, although no author was cited in the presentation and they used local instruction theory in a somewhat different context.

The discussant, Phil Daro, praised the group for their decision to take a design approach to this problem. He questioned a statement in the presentation about not being able to expect high quality enactment of a low quality task, saying this has been documented from successful classrooms in Japan. Daro also liked the group's not-to-strict view of fidelity: "Implementation research is cursed by the idea of fidelity. I'd like to see fidelity go away." Lastly, Daro said this kind of work and partnership is the kind of work that should go on for 20-30 years, creating quality from within. "Don't design something and tell teachers that it's good for them. Develop empathy for teachers first and then give them something they'll think is cool."


Gravemeijer, K. (2004). Local instruction theories as means of support for teachers in reform mathematics education. Mathematical Thinking and Learning, 6(2), 105–128. doi:10.1207/s15327833mtl0602_3

Jackson, K. J., Shahan, E. C., Gibbons, L. K., & Cobb, P. (2012). Launching complex tasks. Mathematics Teaching in the Middle School, 18(1), 24–29.

Stein, M. K., Smith, M. S., Henningsen, M. A., & Silver, E. A. (2009). Implementing standards-based mathematics instruction: A casebook for professional development (2nd ed., p. 182). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.