Tonya Clarke has always loved math. But the students she taught during her first year in the classroom 25 years ago decidedly did not.
The class of juniors and seniors in Georgia’s Clayton County public schools had been told they weren’t on a college track. They couldn’t see how the problems in the textbook would be relevant to their lives.
“That was not something they prepared me for when I graduated from Georgia State,” said Clarke, now Clayton’s K-12 math coordinator, of the institution where she earned her teaching degree. “They did not tell me that students would not like math.”
So she made it her mission to change their minds.
Instead of assigning her students a list of problems from the textbook, she asked them to do a set of calculations that she knew they would care about—to run the numbers on their future lives. What were they planning to do for a living? How much would it pay? How much would housing, food, other expenses cost? The budgeting project achieved what she’d set out to do: Show her students why math was useful in the real world.
It’s a goal that’s driven her work ever since.
“I had to figure out how to get the students to understand it and enjoy it. And that challenge was addictive: What else can I get them to enjoy?” Clarke said. “For me, it’s still the part that I love about education as a whole. There’s always something to problem-solve, to think through. There’s always a challenge.”
When Clarke, 53, started as the district’s math coordinator, in 2014, she had her most high-profile opportunity yet to “make math matter” for students across the district, just as she had in her own classroom years ago.
It became her slogan, her guiding star.
Clarke has set a vision for all students to think, reason, and analyze in math class, not just memorize equations. A few years after she started in the role, she began to build a new system to teach teachers how to facilitate this in their classrooms. And she’s brought in partnerships that expand students’ extracurricular options in math and give them opportunities to see themselves as leaders who can use math to solve real-world problems.
It’s a demanding approach to teaching an already challenging subject in a school system where Clarke says many educators believe that teacher-led instruction is key to creating an orderly classroom and a calm learning environment. Giving students more control in the problem-solving process can feel risky and unpredictable.
But Clarke not only believes her students can handle a deeper approach to math, she also wants them to understand that developing perseverance—in math classes and outside them— can change their lives. It’s a goal that’s especially important to her as a Black educator, working in a majority-Black school district, she said.
I had to figure out how to get the students to understand it and enjoy it. And that challenge was addictive: What else can I get them to enjoy? For me, it's still the part that I love about education as a whole. There's always something to problem-solve, to think through. There's always a challenge.
About 70 percent of Clayton County students are Black; 22 percent are Hispanic. Nearly half of all students are economically disadvantaged, as designated by the state. Math-test scores were already well below the state average before the transformation began.
Clarke wants Clayton’s students to have access to math-based careers and to be able to use math to change their own communities.
“So much is going to depend on them having the knowledge and the wherewithal to advocate for themselves,” she said.
Still, she’s quick to say that the work is only beginning. While she’s seen some classroom-level change in how students reason and discuss, new teachers are hesitant to deviate from a lecture-based format. State test scores, in part a casualty of the pandemic, haven’t yet shown gains.
But her colleagues across the district say that she’s shifted the conversation about what math is for and what Clayton’s students are capable of.
Through her more than two decades in the district, Clarke has built a reputation for setting ambitious goals and working shoulder to shoulder with teachers to attain them.
Clarke is asking for a big change from teachers, said Catherine Lawrence, a math and science instructional-support teacher at Adamson Middle School, but at the same time, she conveys the message, “you’re not alone.”
The ‘I’m W.O.K.E. Project’
Though the effort has become districtwide, Clarke started small, gathering a few teachers who were enthusiastic about embracing a project-based approach to math. They launched a pilot program in the 2016-17 school year.
At the time, Clarke said, students in the district closely followed conversations about police shootings and conduct. She and the teachers searched for a related topic that they could examine through data—and landed on New York City’s stop-and-frisk policy.
The pilot ran as a four-week Saturday school course with middle and high schoolers. Instead of solving a series of equations, students spent their lessons comparing arrests by geographic area using ratios and proportions and graphed data to paint a picture of the overall impact of the program.
About 20 kids showed up to the first session, mostly students who wanted—or needed—the extra credit that teachers offered for participation to boost their grades. The second week, the size of the class had swelled to more than 30.
“The students who came the first week went back and told other friends about this project that we were doing that was going to help them examine fair policing,” Clarke said. “And they brought more students with them.”
Clarke dubbed this project-based structure the “I’m W.O.K.E. Project,” an acronym for Widens Options through Knowledge and Empowerment. It’s since morphed into a one-week special project for middle schoolers for three academic years running. And it laid the foundation for the kind of professional learning she focuses on in her role as math coordinator.
“What we’ve been trying to get [teachers] to understand is start with the project,” Clarke said. “Start with the students and their interests; start with, ‘What will capture them?’ And then let’s look for where is the math within that? And how can we pull that math out?”
That doesn’t mean projects for projects’ sake, she cautioned. Teachers would still need to teach to the standards and cover grade-level content. But they would meet those goals through students’ interests. Along the way, students would problem-solve, discuss their ideas with peers, and explain their reasoning.
That would take planning and deep content knowledge on the part of educators. It would mean teaching teachers to work in a dramatically different way from what they were doing at the time.
But Clarke thought it was the only way forward.
“There’s no problem that you can’t figure out,” she said, an adage she adopted from her late father.
Neither of Clarke’s parents finished high school, but both went back to get GEDs and post-secondary degrees as adults. Watching them build successful careers—her mother as a nurse, her father as a small business owner—helped her envision big possibilities for herself, and later, for her students.
‘The things I saw her do, I mimicked’
Clarke’s approach to teaching math isn’t unique. Showing the subject’s real-world relevance and asking students to reason and discuss in math classes are strategies embedded in many materials designed to meet the Common Core State Standards.
They’re also central to California’s new proposed math framework, which has stirred up discussion and debate in the field. Over the past few years, more teachers have designed projects that ask students to use math to investigate social and political issues.
But applying this idea well is hard. It requires careful sequencing and teacher-provided support to make sure students have the content knowledge and procedural fluency they need to reason through complex problems.
“Problem-based structure has never been widely adopted in the United States. The further you go up [the grade levels], the less likely it’s going to happen,” said Andrew Brantlinger, an associate professor of mathematics education at the University of Maryland.
There’s a lot to cover in math standards, in part because higher-level math is seen as central to college- and career-readiness. Taking the time for students to work through a problem can feel like an unnecessary detour for teachers facing pressure to race through content, he said.
Compounding matters: Most U.S. teachers didn’t learn math this way. In order to do problem-based learning well, teachers need to be “flexible in [their] knowledge,” Brantlinger said—able to adjust if students’ questioning leads in unexpected directions.
Teaching teachers how to do this, and ensuring they have the background knowledge necessary, is difficult for most districts that try this approach, Brantlinger said.
“What’s happening in Clayton, it’s a national issue,” he said. But Clarke is unique in one way, Brantlinger said: Her long-standing commitment to the district, her being “rooted in the community.”
Clarke has used the capital she built up through more than two decades in Clayton in part to focus hard on teacher training. Her team has embedded new activities into the district curriculum, math tasks that provided opportunities for discussion and reasoning. But they knew that curriculum alone wouldn’t bring about changes in instruction.
Giving teachers the chance to learn new approaches, test them out, and discuss with one another—that wasn’t going to happen at a one-off professional development session. So Clarke created a cadre of math ambassadors: classroom teachers, at each school and every grade level, who could meet with her regularly, learn together, and then mentor their peers.
For some teachers, taking on the role felt like an extension of the mentorship that Clarke had already been doing more informally with them throughout her two decades in the district.
“The things that I saw her do, I mimicked,” said Lawrence, the instructional-support teacher. Her education in Clarke’s methods started long before her teaching career; back in 12th grade, she was one of Clarke’s Algebra 3 students.
“In her class, I was able to ask ‘why’ and actually get a definitive answer,” Lawrence remembered—a contrast to other math classes she had been in where questions about the ‘why’ behind math methods “were just met with resistance.” Clarke matched students with a peer partner to discuss and problem-solve. Lawrence instituted the same system in her own classes when she became a teacher.
Tarquiann Bates, an Algebra 1 teacher at Morrow High School, also remembered borrowing from Clarke’s approach for his own classroom, even before he started working as a math ambassador. “She’s definitely leading from the front,” he said.
Still, he worries about maintaining buy-in among staff. It takes a while to bring teachers around to this approach, he said. When teachers leave, or new staff starts, that process has to start all over again.
Encouraging students—and teachers—to notice and wonder
Clarke understands that getting teachers on board takes time. Giving up any control in a room full of 20 to 30 teenagers is intimidating. Teachers worry that if they’re not “the meanest or the sternest,” kids will lose focus or end up off task. But lecturing to prevent side chatter doesn’t reliably engage students, either, she said. So Clarke tries to show teachers how to strike a balance.
In monthly meetings with the district’s math ambassadors, she models new procedures. Take one example of a 3rd grade lesson on symmetry.
Typically, teachers start by defining the term. In Clarke’s model, teachers begin by showing images that lack symmetry, a photo of a crab with three legs on one side and four on the other, for instance. They ask: “What do you notice, what do you wonder?”
Once the students identify the leg difference, teachers can connect the concept of symmetry to an understanding that students already had.
The goal is for math ambassadors and other coaches to spread these practices to the teachers they work with. So far, though, that’s been a challenge.
Many teachers haven’t had much guidance with the new methods in part because school leaders haven’t made it a priority to schedule time for math ambassadors to offer training and group planning, Clarke said. She and her team are still working to change that, despite competing demands for teachers’ time during the day.
Clarke believes these implementation problems are part of the reason the instructional changes haven’t improved students’ math scores on state tests.
Like other high-poverty districts, Clayton has long struggled with the subject. Only 17 percent of students scored “proficient” or above in Algebra 1 on state end-of-course assessments, compared with about 36 percent of students statewide, on tests administered in spring 2016, the year before the math transformation began.
Despite the efforts of Clarke and her team, those Algebra 1 scores haven’t budged. In fact, they fell: Just 14 percent of students scored at the proficient or above level in spring 2022—the first normal year of testing during the pandemic.
Still, schools are seeing some early evidence that they’re on the right track.
The district is also tracking student interest, said Trina Reaves, Clayton’s director of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and innovation.
Clarke set up new districtwide math competitions in which students demonstrate mathematical concepts through art, design their own math board games, or work in teams to use math to solve a real-world problem. Pre-COVID, about 600 students a year participated—a six-fold increase from the number that used to participate in the district’s exam-based competition.
Clarke has also struck up partnerships with several outside organizations to bring math-enrichment opportunities to district students, Reaves said.
One of the students who participated was Anna Njie.
Now a freshman at Vanderbilt University, Njie spent the summer of 2020 teaching elementary and middle school students remotely as one of Clayton’s math-literacy workers—an internship for high schoolers to teach math to younger children, which Clarke brought to Clayton through a partnership with the nonprofit Young People’s Project.
The program changed how Njie thought of herself: as someone who had something to teach others. She attributes much of that change to the leaders of the program, including Clarke.
Clarke made it known, Njie said: “What we had to say mattered.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 15, 2023 edition of Education Week as Making Math Matter: A District Leader’s Mission