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Happy Monday!

As always, I hope you are happy, healthy, and loved.
Every day, I work to recognize how fortunate I am. I see many phenomenal teachers working hard to ensure their students’ improvement and success.  Most of these hardworking teachers are so humble they don’t even realize how fantastic they are at teaching.
I also see teaching that is not moving student achievement forward. It is not that the teachers can’t teach well, it’s that they choose instructional practices that limit their ability to provide powerful instruction.

Telltale signs of underperforming classrooms and schools, here are my reports from the field.

99.9% Accuracy

One of the benefits of working at different schools is the opportunity to notice patterns and see what practices bring out the best in students and the instructional practices that do not.

I can now predict with 99.9% accuracy the academic achievement of a classroom or school without ever stepping foot on campus. I have listed the telltale signs below:

1) If a teacher shows up to training and has nothing to take notes with, then there is a 99% chance that their class is underperforming.

The teachers who show up with nothing to take notes with are publicly positioning themselves as unwilling to learn. If teachers are grading papers, etc. during training, they send a clear message to their colleagues and the presenters that they expect to learn nothing new, know everything they need to know, and are comfortable in their comfort zone.

Taking notes, asking how and why questions, and seeking to understand a topic better to support students will always increase their performance.

2) The second telltale predictor of an underperforming class or school is teachers who respond to new insights and information by saying, “My kids can’t do that.”

There are many things that students can’t do yet, which is why they come to school. When a teacher says my kids can’t do that, they show they have little faith in their ability to teach their students how to do that. They often do not believe their students are capable of learning and will rarely put forth the effort required to help their students achieve new heights. Why bother if it won’t make a difference?

By asking, “How can I get my kids to do that?” Teachers position themselves to learn techniques, strategies, and subtle shifts in questioning that will move their students forward. They show a willingness to learn. If the teachers are learners, the students are learners, too.

On-campus telltale signs

The third telltale of underperforming classrooms and schools is teaching as though we are still in the No Child Left Behind era. These schools and classrooms rely heavily on drill-and-kill methods and fact memorization as their primary form of mathematics instruction.

Drill and kill and fact memorization were the only things students needed to achieve high levels of success on NCLB state assessments. Today’s Common Core standards and the Smarter Balanced Assessment call for higher-level thinking and reasoning skills.

Underperforming classrooms and schools point to a lack of parental involvement as the cause of students’ underperformance. We have no control over what happens at home. The only control schools have, is in the classroom. If students receive over 95% of their mathematics instruction at school, then the teaching must be excellent.

Spend a fraction of instructional time focusing on math facts. Spend the majority of time using and comparing diverse strategies for learning math facts outside of timed tests. Ask open-ended questions that encourage students to talk and think versus yelling out numbers. Conversations between students and between teachers and students improves instruction and student outcomes.


Underperforming classrooms and schools focus on keyword strategies for problem-solving. When students are instructed to circle numbers and keywords to solve problems, their mathematical understanding is severely limited.

Envision a student who has been told to multiply every time they see the word “times”. What are the chances of success when they see the following problem?

A giraffe is four times as tall as a monkey. If a giraffe is 12 feet tall, how tall is the monkey?

Students need to read, reread, and make sense of the whole problem. Click on the link to the keyword strategy above.

Underperforming classrooms and schools explain math the way they learned it in school. Every current teacher went to school in the 1900’s or during the NCLB era. Math research, practices, and strategies have evolved tremendously in the last ten years.

Telltale Signs of High-Performing Schools and Classrooms

Join professional organizations like the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics NCTM (many schools have funding to support teachers).

Read professional articles.

Read professional texts.

Attend in-person or virtual conferences.
Intentionally set out to meet with high-performing teachers and schools. Use data to guide instruction.
Collaborate with colleagues and discuss students on demand and authentic work samples.

Nine times out of 10, if a classroom or school is high performing in mathematics, you will see or hear the above instructional practices in place.

If you are struggling, ask for help.