Doing the Math!  Working to improve math teaching and learning in MBUSD.

Boaler.Math.Workshop.jpgLast week in MBUSD, over 500 people from around Los Angeles came to MBMS to participate in an all-day workshop featuring Dr. Jo Boaler, a world renowned professor of mathematics at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. We cohosted the conference with UCLA. All MBUSD secondary math teachers attended, and many of our elementary teachers participated as well. The thoughts of the day provide an excellent framework for the work we are doing in mathematics curriculum and instruction in MBUSD.

A major focus of teaching and learning in MBUSD has been around moving away from lecture as a primary teaching tool, and moving towards students being active in their learning. Teachers are transitioning their role from the “sage on the stage” to that of the “guide on the side,” working to coach, inspire, and support our students. This has been true in our implementation of Writers’ Workshop and Readers’ Workshop. This is also the essence of the Common Core Standards and the new Next Generation Science Standards that are coming out.  We are committed to aligning research in best practice to all of our classrooms. We want less memorization from our students, and more skills such as analysis, problem-solving, writing, presenting, and creating.

Every one of Dr. Boaler’s ideas has been researched and observed. Here are some of the messages that she stresses:

  • Everyone can be successful at math, from elementary to high school.
  • We urgently need to shift teachers’, parents’, and students’ ideas about who can achieve in mathematics.
  • Parents who tell their children, “When I was in school, I wasn’t good in math either,” are doing way more harm than good!
  • The lowest achieving students are memorizers. The highest achieving students think of big ideas and connections. America has more memorizers than most countries in the world.
  • Formulas are great, but if you can’t explain or visualize them, you may not really understand the math behind them.
  • Brains grow when they are worked. People can become more (or less) intelligent based on increased (or decreased) use of the brain.
  • Rapidity does NOT have a precise relationship to intelligence.

In MBUSD, we are transforming our mathematics program through two major changes:

  1. Implementing shifts in mathematics curriculum and instruction, and
  2. Math courses and pathways. Let’s focus first on how we are teaching math.


Here is how I learned math in high school.

  • Memorize your basic math facts.
  • Memorize key formulas.
  • Practice them on the homework.
  • Use them to do well on the test.

Using those skills today, I am still able to approximate square roots to the nearest hundredth, recite the quadratic formula, integrate simple equations, and compute areas of many traditional and obscure figures.  Quadratic_formula.svgBut I would never say that I truly understood math. In fact, after learning so much about math teaching and learning in the last three years, I understand math better now than I did as an almost math major in college (that’s another story).

I’m not going to go over all of the 8 Standards for Mathematical Practice (SMP), but let me discuss a few, which will show how different math teaching and learning are from just a few years ago.

SMP #1: Make Sense of Problems and Persevere in Solving Them

In my day, we did problems 1-39 odd. Today, we are moving towards classrooms where an entire class period may focus on one highly complex, multi-step problem. Students have to understand so much to do this, and at first, it is intimidating. In my day, collaboration was called cheating. Today, collaboration is a great way to solve problems together. Students will make mistakes.  Instead of just being wrong, students now learn from their mistakes, and go back to work on solving the problem. Oh by the way, in a good problem, there are multiple ways of getting to the correct answer. We celebrate different ways of getting it right.

SMP #3: Construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others

In my day, math was a pretty isolated and independent activity. You listened to the teacher, then you did you work. You learned later if your work was right or wrong. Today, we want our students to be looking at each other’s ideas and work, and actually talk about it. We want our students to use math vocabulary, review different solutions, and converse about what seems right, what is a good solution, and what does not work. Just as students discuss a short story or a historical event, they should be talking about math problems.

SMP #6: Attend to precision.

I have had a few people tell me they don’t like the new math standards because there is no right answer. Ummm, no, that’s not true. There is a right answer. There may be no wrong way of arriving at that answer, and we encourage multiple ways. But precision in math is still important: precision in the answer, in the terms you use, and in how you check your work.


There are several goals in the new state math standards:

  • Fewer standards that are taught in more depth
  • All math pathways are geared to make students college ready

With that in mind, we have created two math pathways for our students, both designed to help our students to be prepared for college application and admission. Beginning next year, students in grades K – 6 will all take the same grade level math courses. This is nothing new for grades K-5, but it is new for grade 6. There will be GATE clusters in some of our Math 1 courses (6th Grade Math), but all students will be taught using the same standards. These new math pathways will be phased in over the next three years, beginning with next year’s 6th grade class at MBMS.

Then, in the 2017-18 year, beginning in grade 7, there will be two pathways. Both pathways can lead to students taking AP Calculus, AP Statistics, or other math classes well above the Algebra 2 requirement for college admission.

  • Students in the regular pathway will take Math 2 in 7thgrade, Math 3 in 8th grade, Algebra 1 in 9th grade, Geometry in 10th grade, and Algebra 2 or a higher option in 11th and 12th grades. Students can reach AP Calculus AB (1st semester college calculus) in this pathway.
  • Students in the accelerated pathway can take Math 2 and 3 in 7th grade (1 course, with two years of content), Algebra 1 in 8th grade, and can end up taking Calculus BC (2nd semester college calculus) as a senior.

The biggest change here is that, beginning with next year’s 6th grade class, Algebra 1 is the highest course our students will take in middle school. Our math teachers and math researchers such as Jo Boaler believe that we have rushed this in the past. Algebra 1 is designated as a 9th grade course by the California Department of Education (CDE). The CDE also cautions against accelerating students in math prior to 10th grade. However, our analysis of MBUSD student performance data indicates that we have had many students take Algebra 1 in 8th grade and go onto further math success, but less than two percent have similar success when taking Geometry in 8th grade. This recent research and analysis of student learning make us believe that both Math 3 and Algebra 1 are excellent destinations for our 8th graders. Nearly all of the comparable high performing districts have made this same change.

Our biggest challenge remaining is to further reduce the breadth of material in our middle school and high school math classes. In my mind, these classes still have way too many standards to teach, therefore we rush through them, and when we rush, it is impossible to use high quality teaching techniques. I am pushing to have our math teachers teach just 8 to 10 big ideas during a math year, and go into significant depth on those topics.

So we have made many changes, all designed to help our students deeply understand mathematics through a balanced approach to math learning that stresses procedural fluency, application, and conceptual learning. We have course changes happening next year which should further help that goal. And we are working on changing our courses in high school, so our teachers are more able to truly teach math concepts, and not have to rush through them.

I am grateful for our teachers who have worked so hard to improve their teaching every day. It’s what our students deserve, and I am appreciative of their efforts. I thank Dr. Brett Geithman and Dr. Chad Mabery for leading so many parent workshops in math. I thank all of the parents who have given us so much input in this process. And I thank the Board for adopting courses and pathways that I believe are best for students.


Michael D. Matthews, Ed.D.
Superintendent of Schools
Manhattan Beach Unified School District
Twitter: @drmdmatthews

2014-15: The Year of the Maker in MBUSD

2014-15: The Year of the Maker in MBUSD
Students are the core of all of our efforts in the Manhattan Beach Unified School District. The 2014-15 school year has been a year of significant accomplishments for MBUSD students and staff, yet we remain steadfast in our determination to engage in continuous improvement. To provide MBUSD students with the 21st century skills they need to be successful in the world into which they will graduate, we are making sure that all of our students are at the center of our instructional improvements, our facility improvements and our plans for the future.
Making it Happen! On March 31st of this year, we cut the ribbon to celebrate the completion of our construction project at Mira Costa High School. We turned old classrooms into new classrooms. We built a new math/science building filled with state of the art laboratories where our students make science happen. We created new music rooms where our GRAMMY-winning student musicians create works of art every day. We now have a beautiful small theater where we can host 300 people for speaking and performing events. And in the middle of it all, we made a huge new collegiate-style quad where our students can enjoy the outdoors each and every day. And all of it was on time and on budget.
Making the Student the Center of Instruction! Our teachers have participated in and helped to lead five full days of district wide professional development this year. Our focus has been entirely on making classrooms places where students are doing, making, problem solving, thinking, and creating. I see it in our elementary classrooms, where teachers serve as coaches and mentors to students as they work to improve their reading, writing and math skills. I see it in our middle schools where our amazing science teachers offer hands-on science lessons where students can make their own meaning. I see it in our high school where students lead seminar sessions, direct and produce video production programming, and debate in our internationally acclaimed Model United Nations Program. MBUSD students are increasingly spending their time communicating, collaborating, creating and critically thinking.
Making Makers! One of the big movements in our country is the “Maker Movement.” It is happening in MBUSD, as all of our elementary schools have parent-led MakerSpace programs. Our students are creating robots, machines and inventions. We see it in our middle school with our Fab Lab Program, where students are creating using 3D printing and much more. We see it in our high school with our new Robotics program. All of these programs are rich in technology. Making gives students the opportunity to demonstrate their technical knowledge and creativity as well as their habits such as perseverance and resourcefulness.
Making the Grade! Our students, teachers and programs have received so many recognitions this year. As I mentioned earlier, our music program was named by the GRAMMY Foundation as one of the top programs in the nation. Both MBMS and Mira Costa High School received Gold Ribbon School awards this year. For the second year in a row, a teacher from our small school district has been named as a California Teacher of the Year. Congratulations to Maggie Mabery and Michael Hayden, the 2015 and 2014 California Teachers of the Year!Congratulations to Mr. John Jackson, the California Middle School Principal of the Year! And congratulations to all of us for helping conserve our planet. The state of California named MBUSD as a Green Ribbon District, because of our exemplary sustainability practices.
Making Plans for the Future! As our Mira Costa Construction Program is complete, we have turned our attention to the future. We are seeking to understand the needs of all our schools in terms of facilities that will serve the students for decades to come. How can our needs also serve members of our community? How should we upgrade our campuses and facilities? On July 15, the Board will adopt a Master Facilities Plan that will give us a roadmap to address our needs for the future.
Making a Difference! By investing in our students, our staff and our facilities, we are transforming great schools into extraordinary 21st century learning environments, where learning is student-centered and authentic. MBUSD is making a difference for our current and future students by providing them with the knowledge and skills they need to be successful in college, career and life. I am so grateful for all our teachers, staff, leaders, parents, community members and students who all work together to make a difference now and in the future.
Thank you, and have a great summer.
Mike Matthews
Michael D. Matthews, Ed.D.
Superintendent of Schools
Manhattan Beach Unified School District
Twitter: @drmdmatthews

On Advanced Placement and Weighting

For the first time ever, we implemented a weighting policy in our high school. Advanced Placement classes will receive an extra grade point when we compute a student’s GPA. Students and parents may think it will provide an advantage in college admissions, but it won’t. We already do quite well in that area, and no student has been harmed by a lack of weighting. It will help a very small minority of our students who are trying to receive financial aid from seven or eight colleges in our nation. I resent the policies in those colleges, but I cannot change them. So we are now weighting.
One of my concerns and a concern for counselors and teachers in our high school is that we do not want this new weighting policy to encourage students to take more Advanced Placement classes than they should. We have read research on this, and the research contends that weighting grades is a reward for students taking AP classes, not an incentive for them to take more AP classes. We all hope that is the case.
Allow me to give you some of my thoughts about AP classes and student stress. First of all, I am a fan of well-taught AP classes. I taught AP US History for eleven years, and I loved it. I considered it to be a thinking and writing course using US history as the content. I strongly believe that any student who wants to go to a four-year college should take at least oneAdvanced Placement class during their high school career. Advanced Placement is as close as you will get to college rigor and it will give students a feel for collegiate rigor. When taught well, AP classes go far beyond memorization, instead focusing on writing, analysis and problem-solving. Right now, 57% of our graduates take and pass at least one AP class and exam before graduating. While that is wonderful, I would like to see that number be more like 70% or 75%. That is the amount of students that we see going directly to four-year college.
On the other hand, one of the biggest concerns that our counselors and I have is students who overdo it with Advanced Placement classes. It’s hard to define what “overdoing it” means.Students have different abilities and some are able to tolerate more than others. Using my version of common sense, taking one Advanced Placement class a year is excellent, taking two Advanced Placement classes a year is considerable, and taking three is really the equivalent of taking a full college load while also taking high school courses and all the activities that go along with that. In my mind, taking three AP courses is extreme. We have students who take four and five. I believe that is unhealthy and unwise, but I know some of our students and parents insist upon it. We do not have any rules at this time to stop it, but I know our counselors discourage students from overdoing it. I applaud their efforts.
I encourage students to take Advanced Placement classes in the areas that they are passionate about. If you know you are going to pursue liberal arts, take your AP classes there.If you are leaning towards the sciences, take your AP classes there. Or you can take my advice to college students on which college courses to take – find the best teachers you can and take their courses. Great teachers can make anything interesting. Students should choose wisely. They are giving up some of their own time by taking too many. And I want students to have as much time as possible that they can call their own.
I have mentioned before my appreciation for Excellent Sheep, by William Deresiewicz (2015). He’s states, “We want kids with resilience, self-reliance, independence of spirit, genuine curiosity and creativity, and a willingness to take risks and make mistakes.” We should all encourage students to pursue their passions as much as possible while they are in school. What kind of passions am I talking about? Music, acting, arts, athletics, thinking, problem-solving, friendships, building anything, worthy causes, and any other great use of time. Our job as parents and educators is to help our students find and pursue those passions. We cannot do it for them. All we can do is encourage. And if they have no time of their own, there is no time to pursue those passions.
We will be analyzing our Advanced Placement numbers carefully. We will be watching in particular for new students taking at least one AP class. If that number increases, I will consider that a victory for all of the students and for the school. We will also stay vigilant in evaluating the number of students who are taking more than three advanced placement classes. If this number rises, I will consider it an unhealthy result of our weighting grades and we will have to consider how best to address that. In the meantime, let’s all encourage our students to find balance, and to find time they can call their own.
Mike Matthews
Michael D. Matthews, Ed.D.
Superintendent of Schools
Manhattan Beach Unified School District
Twitter: @drmdmatthews

My Thoughts on Common Core Math

One of the major focuses for improving instruction comes in Common Core math. Our district is in the midst of adopting new teaching methodologies for our math teachers aligned to meet the demands of the Eight Standards for Mathematical Practices and the new standards in each grade. In spite of the politics that sometimes exists around the Common Core, I believe that if one actually examines the practices and standards, there is nothing unusual or out of line. What you will see is that the expectations are high. I embrace those high standards for our students.
Compared to the rest of the world, adults and students in the United States are not very good at math. I believe one of the reasons for that is that we are often taught that there is one way and one way only to solve a problem, and either you understand it or you don’t. That is just not true. There are many ways to think about solving even the simplest of math problems. We are often taught how to solve a problem using a proven method. We can get the answer, but the meaning can escape us. Even if you can solve a math problem, it does not mean you understand it.
I have always liked math. In elementary school, Rose Ann Hansen and I regularly competed to finish first in the class in all of the 100-question multiplication quizzes. She was a fierce competitor. I can still recite the quadratic equation, though I have absolutely no idea how use it. My wife and I sometimes compete at estimating square roots to the nearest hundredth. We are pretty close, but the difference is, she truly understands math. I was even a math major for a while in college, including successfully taking all the calculus classes. I gave up after my linear algebra class, where I could solve the problems correctly, but I had absolutely no idea what I was doing! I was able to solve the problem the way I was told to solve the problem, but unable to understand anything about what I had accomplished other than getting the right answer. I was doing math, but not understanding math. Finishing first, memorizing, and following procedural directions have their place, but they have little to do with understanding math. If we are going to compete internationally, far more of us have to truly understand math. That’s where the Common Core Standards come in: they are far more about understanding the math.
Common Core math seeks to help students always understand “the math behind the math” and how to apply it in real life situations by spending more time on concepts than our previous standards did. When these higher expectations are applied in the classroom, students will see problems that can look very different from what we parents saw in school. It will look different when are trying to help students go beyond memorization, and towards understanding. Here is a 3-minute video describing what these problems may look like, and why we are trying to teach students that there are multiple ways to approach a complex math problem.
If you want more information, there are many informational resources at
My bottom line: The Common Core Standards in mathematics can help us to be a nation that is far better at truly understanding math. I am 100% in.
Mike Matthews
Michael D. Matthews, Ed.D.
Superintendent of Schools
Manhattan Beach Unified School District
Twitter: @drmdmatthews

One More Hill

My dad took up bicycling in the 1970s.  Biking with 10-speed bikes.  No one biked with 10-speed bikes back then!  I was a swimmer, so ever since I was ten years old, I was always in good enough shape to go for a thirty-mile bike ride.  So my Dad would take me.   We’d go on Saturday rides around the great state of Arkansas with other wackos who were part of the biking world back then.  I loved being with my dad, and I liked the bike riding.  But we often went past forty miles, and I will say, I was not always happy when we did.
I have great memories.
  • I remember coming into a country store around lunch time looking for a sandwich.  The store didn’t sell sandwiches, just groceries.  But the owner opened up a loaf of bread and a package of bologna and a bottle of mustard, and charged us for the portion that she used.  Pretty cool.
  • Our family of six (four kids – ages 16 to 11) went biking for three weeks in Ireland, camping half the time and staying in B&Bs half the time.  It was a lifetime experience that warrants its own set of stories.
  • The last time I took a big trip with my Dad was about 20 years ago, when the two of us went biking in the San Juan Islands.  It was a fantastic trip where we camped the entire time.  Once again, my Dad was in better shape than I, but he dragged me along.  That’s us below.
One of many memories of biking with my dad is one that occurred quite often.  We would be biking in the afternoon of an all-day ride, somewhere in the Ozarks.  The Ozarks are beautiful and certainly not as high or steep as the Rockies or Sierras.  But I will tell you, there is a lot of uphill.  I would be grinding up a hill and ready to take a break, when my dad would say, “Mike.  I promise you.  This is the last hill.”  There is something about hope that gives you strength when you did not think you had it.  I would plow to the top, only to see nothing but hills, hills and more hills on the road ahead.  I would say something angry to my dad, who would say something like, “I said that this is the last big hill.”  OK, it was a lie.  But you know what, it made me get up that hill.  I could have chosen to stop at that time (I’m not sure how I would have gotten home), but I always chose to go on.  Being pushed and pulled towards greatness is an essential ingredient of improving and achieving greatness.
San Juan Islands MDM
Peter Senge called it “Creative Tension.”  Liz Wiseman has her “Rubber Band Theory.”  Steven Covey had it in his goal setting and “saw sharpening” activities.  When we are being pushed to improve, we are at our best.  It’s why people have a personal trainer.  It’s why I swim in a master’s program.  I would be very happy swimming a mile in the pool at my own medium pace.  But for the last 15 months, I have been in a pool with people much faster than I am, where a coach pushes me to swim two miles at paces much faster than I want to.  You know what has happened?  I am stronger and faster.   I now look for the hills on my bike rides and I look forward to swimming difficult sets, because they are beautiful, they are challenging, they are different, and because they make me stronger.
I hope we as educators view things similarly.  Although it is comfortable to keep swimming the same evenly-paced mile or keep biking the same relatively flat and short path, we do our best when we push ourselves, or when we have colleagues or mentors who push us to try new things, or push to improve.  We are better teachers when we do not settle for most of the students learning the material, but we insist on doing what it takes to help all students to learn it.  We do better when we treat every lesson as a chance for greatness.  It is why I believe so much in professional development.  We are in the learning business.  If we as teachers are not constantly learning, we are serving our profession poorly. Believe me, I know that teaching is hard.  Teaching is a full time job without adding any time for professional development.  But so is being a doctor.  We have to make time for learning.  We have to push ourselves up the hill.  We are better teachers for it, and more importantly, our students gain tremendously.
And I would say it’s impossible to do it alone.  For me, throughout my life, my father, my mother, my mentors and my coaches have pushed me to being better today than I was yesterday.   And I love it.  And sometimes,when I think I cannot go on, I love that I still choose to believe it when someone says to me, “This is the last hill.”
Thanks for reading,
Mike Matthews
Michael D. Matthews, Ed.D.
Superintendent of Schools
Manhattan Beach Unified School District
Twitter: @drmdmatthews