Improving the Structure of Math Departments

At many schools I’ve worked at or observed, math departments are structured counterproductively.  The best teachers often teach the most advanced classes, while the newest teachers, or those most in need of support, teach the classes that struggling students are more likely to attend.  As a result, the students most in need of excellent teaching can be least likely to get it.

Math departments may be structured this way for a variety of reasons.  There is surely a correlation of some sort between teaching skill and mastery of mathematics, so the best teachers may just more often than novice teachers be well-equipped to teach advanced courses.  It may also be the case that teachers prefer teaching advanced classes; as the students in advanced classes typically already want to be there, teachers of those classes can focus more on content instruction and less on classroom management.  School leaders may want to keep their best teachers happy, and giving those teachers the advanced classes may be one way to do that.

I can understand why teachers might, if given the choice, decide to teach AP Calculus AB instead of an intervention class geared towards students who failed Algebra I.  Especially given the workloads American society foists upon teachers, who never have enough hours in the day to do a fraction of what they’d ideally do for their students, teacher burnout is a real concern.  While I know some great teachers who love teaching hard-to-reach students and have made doing so their life’s work, and while teaching advanced students also carries its challenges, working with the highest-need students is often emotionally exhausting and probably accelerates the burning-out process.

Several approaches could potentially help reduce the tension between pursuing the most equitable arrangement – in which the best teachers teach the students who need help most – and protecting teachers against burnout.  One option would be to reduce the number of classes teachers of introductory or remedial courses would be required to teach.  If nothing else, an extra free period would give these teachers more time to plan remediation and give students constructive feedback.  Another option would be to ensure that an instructional aide is available to assist teachers in every lower-level course they teach.  A third approach would be to require every teacher teaching an AP or honors course to teach a lower-level course as well.  (None of these ideas is mutually exclusive, of course.)

Reducing teacher burnout and making our schools more equitable are big challenges that ultimately require substantially increased investments in public education, particularly in low-income areas, as well as an overhaul of what teacher workdays and support structures look like.  We must push for those investments and overhauls, not to mention the larger, outside-of-school changes that are most important for ensuring equal opportunity for every student in this country.  In the meantime, we should explore creative ways to simultaneously keep our best teachers invigorated and make sure they’re in front of our students in need.


Filed under Education

5 responses to “Improving the Structure of Math Departments

  1. becca1190

    Hey Ben,

    I agree with you that this is a huge issue, and not one that only exists anecdotally…there is a cannon of research highlighting this problem. I wondered why you don’t mention anything about why our classes (especially STEM classes) are tracked to such a high degree in the first place. Surely there’s a place on your solutions list that includes bringing the sociocultural element back to math instruction that can only happen with more heterogeneous groupings. In my mind, this is the only way to bring equity to math instruction in a way that every student benefits and every teacher is required to universally design their instruction.

    Just sayin’…
    Glad you are bringing attention to such an important issue!

    • Thanks so much for the comment. While I think there’s some utility in offering more advanced classes to a subset of students, I agree that classes are often over-tracked and that that has real equity implications. I would love to hear what you think a more equitable set of course offerings might look like at the high school level.

      • becca1190

        At a minimum, we should no longer offer intervention math classes that are often required at the expense of something else (i.e., drop Science to take a second period of math) or at the expense of interacting with peers who are more proficient in the subject. These interventions can be done within heterogeneous courses. Some promising areas of research are Complex Instruction ( and Universal Design for Learning (

        Although I agree with you that there is great value in offering advanced classes at the high school level, continuing this practice in a more equitable way would include closely inspecting all the gatekeepers that prevent students from accessing those classes in the first place. It’s a much bigger issue than simply having more highly skilled teachers teaching higher level courses. It would require a pretty big paradigm shift.

  2. carlbradleyherman

    Hi Ben,
    What I have to offer is difficult to hear, so first some context: I’m a National Board Certified Teacher and Coach, credentialed in Mathematics and Social Science, and with an Ed.M in Education from Harvard. Two Los Angeles Mayors recognized my teaching as among the very best in Central Los Angeles (an area of ~20,000 teachers), and when students used to vote for the school’s favorite teacher they honored me more years than not. I apply mathematics to economics research requested for academic papers and presentations by leading universities (The Claremont Colleges in 2015 for ~2,000 people, search “Seizing an Alternative” with my name).

    I currently teach three sections of Algebra 1 to Juniors and Seniors who had failed it at least once, along with two Algebra Support classes. This is at a lower-performing, lower-income NoCal high school in Hayward, with a department average of ~60% failing Algebra as 9th and 10th graders. My students have a Q1 GPA in Algebra of 3.64, with zero fails among students present to class (excluding 11% of my students absent 80% or more). This follows work at the lowest-ranked middle school in San Jose USD where my 8th grade math students consistently ranked 3rd among the seven middle schools (Hoover MS had an API at the time of 1-1: the lowest possible among 100 rankings, with the other six schools averaging an API of 6). Anonymous student surveys of satisfaction, what counselors say they hear from students, and parents all provide touching high praise of our teaching/learning.

    So what’s difficult to hear of my observations?

    Briefly, with a paper having all I have to say at the end: algebra is the main reason high school and college students fail to graduate, CSU just dropped Algebra 2 as a general ed requirement in recognition of the data all math teachers should know that less than 1% of adults use algebraic formulas for work, and our texts find so little connections to “real-world math” that their word problem examples are ridiculous parodies of people actually performing those tasks and sometimes even violate laws of physics, math definitions, and common sense.

    That is, the math we teach is a type of lie that almost all adults forget, and research also offers make more people “math phobics” than it helps. Documentation of above claims at the student assignment, “A, B, Cs to earn millions before we consider “x””:

    But here’s what I really see about math education:

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