Math Differentiation in a Common Core World

Just last week, I was invited to speak at the CCSSO Rural Chiefs Conference in Kansas City on the topic of “Supporting Math Differentiation in a Common Core World”.  While there is much written and discussed on the idea of differentiated instruction, in practice there are limited tools and resources to support math differentiation, a deficiency well-documented in this recent Ed Week article, ‘’Educators in Search of Common Core Resources”.

A theme permeating much of my presentation was the seemingly benign but pernicious neglect of math in our country.  By almost any measure, e.g. instructional time, professional development, number of assessments ,instructional programs, etc… math runs a distant second to reading in the amount of instructional attention given.  At least part of the challenge we face in addressing our math crisis in k-12 education will require that we remedy this neglect.

In my suggestions for addressing this imbalance I focused on four critical strategies. While the adoption of the CCSS is a huge first step in the right direction, its real success will rest upon how effectively we implement these standards.  Along with the implementation of these standards, it is critical that we recognize that math – like any other skill – can be learned.  Too often we subscribe, consciously and unconsciously, to the notion that math achievement is an inherent ability, as if math achievement was based on a “math gene”.  If we take more of a Carolyn Dwek growth perspective, as opposed to a fixed mind set, we will go a long way toward promoting the idea that math achievement is possible for all of our students.

Secondly, we need to build math tools and resources that support differentiated instruction.  Once, when leading a math workshop for a school district, the head of the math department informed me, tongue in cheek, that all math teachers know how to differentiate instruction:  “We say it louder and we repeat it”. This RV (repetition and volume) model is likely to only work if the student is hearing impaired.  Yet I suspect we have all seen variations of this model, this when we continue to drill a student on a math problem or concept to no avail.  Meaningful differentiated instruction is really only possible when we are able to measure a student’s math level and the difficulty of the math concepts and skills on a common scale.  This possibility is now a reality with the Quantile Framework for Mathematics.  Once you know a student’s Quantile measure you know what math skills they are ready to learn.  And just as importantly, one can make sure that the learner has acquired the necessary pre-requisite skills.  Unfortunately, we often continue to employ the “RV” model and fail to drill down and provide differentiated content and instruction to meet the unique needs of the learner.

A third and critical step towards bending the math growth trajectory for all students is mitigating the devastating effects of summer loss.  While summer loss in reading mostly impacts our low income students, summer loss in math impacts students across socioeconomic levels.   During the summer months, we need to draw the same attention to math as we currently do to reading.  On our website ( we have built a free utility, Math at Home, which teachers, parents, and students can use to address this issue.

Fourth, students need access to personalized learning platforms that promote the basic elements of deliberate practice. Differentiated instruction through personalized learning platforms enable the learner to move through a learning progression of math skills at the right time, pace, and level.  The underlying engines for the delivery of content within these platforms will require the use of vertical scales, like the Quantile scale, so that the math level of the learner can be matched to the appropriate mathematics material.  Computer adaptive delivery of content and assessment require a common vertical scale that links student to skills.  And the Quantile Framework for Mathematics provides that link.

With the advent of the CCSS we are starting to have the right national conversations about mathematics instruction, which is a step in the right direction.  At MetaMetrics we are dedicated to building the resources and tools to support differentiated instruction and help all students improve their math skills.

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