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What is Specialized Math Instruction?

Specialized Math Instruction (SMI) focuses on improving instructional techniques–or pedagogy– of all educators for teaching mathematics for all students.  

Regardless of role, general educators, interventionists, special educators or paraeducators all play a part in specializing math instruction to respond to all students’ needs. Specialized math instruction is tailored to the specific needs of individual students based on data from classroom assessments, student work samples, and targeted interviews within a Multi-tiered System of Support (or MTSS)

At ALN, Specialized Math Instruction is derived from a focus on High Leverage Concepts (HLCs) selected to best align with the student’s baseline need, or where the student demonstrates a lack of facile understanding of a mathematical concept.  Educators use instructional techniques to assess and respond to students' needs, monitor student progress and growth, and use student error analysis to provide explicit, targeted instruction for foundational skills and concepts in the HLC maps.

It is important to understand that SMI supports an MTSS model. We like to think about the MTSS model as layers, rather than separate tiers of support for students.  

In our MTSS Layer 1, also known as Tier 1 or core instruction, we are providing high-quality, classroom based instruction for all students. The content is driven by grade-level standards, such as those set forth in the Common Core that builds toward college-and-career readiness. The learning opportunities are differentiated in order to allow all students the opportunity to struggle with and make meaning of the content. The differentiation at this layer of instruction is to ensure access to grade level concepts.  

We have to be careful not to remove the important struggle with sense-making that all students should engage with to ensure conceptual understanding of the High Leverage Concepts.  Sometimes that means removing an obstacle to access for a student.  For example, a student struggling with fine motor skills would access larger, easy-grip manipulatives.  A student learning English as their second language may hear the problem presented in their first language or have access to images that support understanding of the vocabulary. As part of this core instruction, we regularly assess the learning of all students in the class to determine the effectiveness of core instruction and identify students in need of additional support.  

In our MTSS Layer 2, also known as Tier 2 , we add more specialized math instruction or a secondary intervention for some students who need additional support. Intervention uses evidence-based practices and/or programs that directly align with core instruction. Intervention provides explicit pre teaching of core content as a supplement to core instruction along with explicit instruction in and practice with underlying skills identified along the HLC MAPs. Intervention includes progress monitoring data at least one-two times per month using a valid, reliable tool.

In our MTSS Layer 3, or Tier 3, we are providing intensive, more individualized intervention to students who need more specialized math instruction. Through the MTSS model, we are able to identify and target the smaller group of students (usually only about 3-5 percent of a school’s population) who need this intensive layer of instruction, in addition to the previous layers of support. Specialized instruction at this layer uses clinical interviews, progress monitoring and error analysis data to identify skill deficits and necessary adaptations to the intervention. The goal is to provide explicit instruction in foundational skills, broken into smaller steps. At this layer, educators prioritize the high leverage concepts and spend extended time providing explicit instruction with models to support conceptual understanding of the HLCs. This layer of support provides multiple and varied opportunities for learning and practice, including the use of manipulatives, with explicit corrective feedback. Student progress is monitored weekly so that instruction can be more responsive to student needs.

Even with high quality core instruction in the classroom, we know that some students do need more support. The MTSS model allows us to identify and provide additional layers of support, including intervention and specialized instruction, to students so that every student has access to what they need to grow.

At its heart, specialized math instruction takes the needs of a student, or a small group of students, into consideration when planning math instruction to meet their growth needs and to ensure accessibility to core content instruction while also ensuring the growth and development of each individual. Specialized math instruction focuses on teaching the High Leverage Concepts and Progressions. Every student has the right to leave a grade level having learned the most essential math identified in the HLCs.  We regularly assess and monitor progress in order to ensure student growth and achievement and refine our goals and next instructional steps.  We approach our instruction as a rapid cycle of inquiry, using evidence of student thinking and understanding, attending specifically to the HLCs, to drive our instructional decision-making.