Count on Us: The Story of The Math Placement Practices Network

Count on Us: The Story of The Math Placement Practices Network

I was never that good at math—but I had a deep desire to become not only proficient, but exemplary, especially in calculus.

In my high school, I was one of only a few African-American students. I completed three years of math, and worked tirelessly solving equations in my trigonometry course only to end up with mediocre grades. The school offered few resources to accelerate my academic growth in this pursuit. Nevertheless, I graduated from high school and went to college. I eventually earned a graduate degree in Education and taught for five years in a school in inner-city Detroit.

Many students in California are faced with the opposite challenge. A 2010 Noyce Foundation study titled “Pathway Reports: Dead Ends and Wrong Turns on the Path Through Algebra” found that approximately 65 percent of students who took Algebra I in eighth grade were made to repeat the same course in ninth grade. Additional research revealed that these misplacements were particularly notable for African-American and Latino boys, and posed challenges for high school students, affecting their opportunities in college, careers, and life.

To address this issue, in 2015 Senator Holly Mitchell (D), with support from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, worked to pass the California Math Placement Act. Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation in that same year requiring school districts to design equitable policies that “systematically take multiple, current or existing, objective measures” to ensure students are advancing to the next prescribed course in the mathematics progression.

Since the law was passed, most school districts in California have struggled with its implementation. The East Side Alliance (ESA), which consists of eight partner districts that together serve nearly 85,000 students in seven elementary schools and one high school district, has been at the forefront of that work. Even before the Math Placement Act was passed, ESA members worked collaboratively through the Student Algebra Project to ensure equitable outcomes for all students.

State policies, particularly in education, succeed or fail in implementation at the school and district levels and the California Math Placement Act is no exception. The Math Placement Practices Network, facilitated by Pivot Learning and funded by the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, began working with ESA early this year to design and sustain a network of schools. This work has focused on developing a shared problem of practice to effectively implement the state’s policy–specifically to improve existing pathway criteria so that all students are placed appropriately. Particular attention has been centered on ensuring English Language Learners, students with special needs, and students of color are supported and challenged. We have been working with five ESA school districts: Alum Rock, Mount Pleasant, Berryessa Union, Franklin-McKinley and Oak Grove.

Our collaborative work has included identifying focus areas within math placement and developing specific visions and goals for each district’s work next year. As we reviewed data and discussed potential focus areas with district teams, several themes emerged:

  • In the Eastside Alliance, all 9th grade students are placed in Integrated Math I or II. However, not all students are successful in this placement. In middle school, students need to be better prepared to be successful in this placement.
  • There is an under-representation of students of color, English Language Learners, and students with special needs in the advanced pathways in middle schools.
  • The current set of criteria is working for placement for some but not all students, schools, and districts. We need to determine why and if/how the criteria might be modified.

Our partner districts are focusing on these final two sub-problem areas and are also examining the pathway criteria to address the under-representation of students of color and other sub-groups in advanced middle school pathways. To approach this work, we introduced Change Design, a process for moving from our shared problems to developing solutions and achieving our goals. Pivot has leveraged this model (inspired by IDEO and Stanford University’s to solve major system design challenges with schools and districts for the past several years.

Our final meeting with the network this year fused the change design process to develop individualized action plans for 2017-18. Our network will also utilize Collaboration in Common, a state-endorsed online portal, to share best practices and resources across districts to address our collective problem of practice.

Success for our students, particularly our African-American and Latino students, will depend upon equitable systems and protocols particularly as it pertains to math pathways. The Math Placement Practices Network convenes dedicated and committed educators working actively to ensure we guarantee this success for all students.


For more information about our networks, please contact us.




Pivot Learning joins Oceanside Unified, Monterey Unified, and Bonsall Unified, along with the Linked Learning Alliance, to rethink and redesign the 6-12 school experience.   

Oakland, CAPivot Learning is proud to announce the launch of the Beyond High School Initiative to transform the secondary school experience in order to ensure that all students can succeed in college and career. With generous support from the James Irvine Foundation, Pivot is partnering with Monterey Peninsula Unified, Oceanside Unified, and Bonsall Unified school districts and the Linked Learning Alliance to develop a comprehensive secondary redesign model utilizing a suite of cutting-edge technology tools.

The goal of Beyond High School is to transform the secondary experience to provide equitable access for all students to career-themed “pathways” or “academies” in areas such as computer science, healthcare, tourism, and agriculture. The model is based on the four pillars of the research-based Linked Learning approach – rigorous academics, career technical training, work-based learning, and personalized student supports. SRI International’s recently released seven-year evaluation of Linked Learning in nine California districts found decreased dropout rates, higher graduation rates, and more credits earned for students in linked learning pathways. The Beyond High School program is led by Dr. Laura Flaxman, founder of the nationally renowned Life Academy High School in Oakland, California.

“Our team of secondary experts has deep experience in redesigning schools and Linked Learning,” said Dr. Flaxman. “We are thrilled to be launching this important and innovative initiative as a proof point on how to rethink secondary education in California and the nation.”

Beyond High School has several key features. First, districts are supported by Pivot experts through a change design process. “Design teams” of district leaders, teachers, students, parents, community members, industry partners, and community college leaders plan, develop, and prototype their model for secondary redesign. In two of the districts, Bonsall and Monterey Peninsula Unified School Districts the teams are redesigning their full secondary pathways from 6-12. In Oceanside Unified School District, the team is redesigning one of their large comprehensive high schools: Oceanside High School.

“We are excited to partner with Pivot to ensure that all of our students are successful both in and beyond high school,” Reggie Thompkins, Deputy Superintendent, Oceanside Unified School District noted.

Pivot is also partnering with the Linked Learning Alliance to implement two new technology tools in all three districts. The first, Linked Learning Analytics, analyses vital student data allowing districts and community members to assess the impact of their redesigned secondary pathways on student outcomes. The second, Linked Learning Certification, provides the districts and school leaders with an intuitive online mechanism to officially certify their schools as Linked Learning Pathways. Pivot is also partnering with Abl and School by Design to pilot tools to transform the use of time, including tools to streamline and facilitate the master scheduling.


Pivot Learning and Team Up to Help CA Districts Select the Best Instructional Materials for Their Students

Pivot Learning and Team Up to Help CA Districts Select the Best Instructional Materials for Their Students

California educators know that curriculum and instructional materials can have a large impact on what and how well students learn. Quality instructional materials must be aligned to national and California content standards and meet the specific needs of districts and charters.

In Pivot’s work with dozens of districts throughout California, we have found that teachers and leaders are working hard to identify quality, relevant curriculum. One teacher in our Rural Professional Learning Network (RPLN) noted that her district hasn’t yet selected Common Core-aligned materials, “so teachers piece together old curriculum (10-15 years old) and online resources.” This struggle isn’t limited to Pivot’s partners. In a 2015 report, Morgan Polikoff, Associate Professor of Education at the University of Southern California, reported that only about 50% of schools in California have adopted at least one CCSS-aligned math textbook.

Because of the large number of state approved materials, California districts have often been challenged to identify the materials that are best aligned to the Math and English Language Arts content standards. Throughout the curriculum adoption process, districts can benefit from objective, detailed reviews of state approved curriculum. Outside reviews can provide comprehensive information about the quality and alignment of instructional materials so that district leaders can make the best choice for their teachers and students.

The California Curriculum Collaborative, an initiative of Pivot Learning and,  provides the rigorous independent reviews that districts and charter schools need. Using the independent information provided in, the CCC is designed to help districts and charters navigate the curriculum adoption process in California. The CCC also includes reviews of programs not included on California’s adopted programs list. Indeed, California allows districts to use off-list curricular materials (not on the state-approved list), and Dr. Polikoff found that more districts and charters are adopting off-list textbooks since the introduction of CCSS.

This spring, Pivot Learning and will host workshops to introduce districts to the California Curriculum Collaborative, including best practices in the adoption process and tools designed to support districts in making the right choices for their students. We hope to build informed collaboration across districts in California and bring clarity to the very important task of choosing an appropriate instructional program.

Curriculum can help drive or inhibit teaching and learning. With the right process that prioritizes high-quality, aligned materials and strong community engagement, districts and schools will be able to ensure that students have the materials they need to succeed.


Polikoff, M.S. (2015). How well aligned are textbooks to the Common Core standards in mathematics? American Educational Research Journal, 52(6), 1185–1211. doi:    10.3102/0002831215584435

Polikoff, M.S. (2016, December 9). Textbook adoption in California: Issues and evidence.                       [Presentation]. Retrieved from

Weisskirk, L. (2016, October 21). Purchasing instructional materials: What you choose and how you choose matters. SouthEast Education Network (SEEN). Retrieved from        Instructional-Materials

Tracy Unified School District Works with Pivot Learning to identify $1.2M in Potential Funding to Better Support Student Learning

Tracy Unified School District Works with Pivot Learning to identify $1.2M in Potential Funding to Better Support Student Learning

When Brian Stephens, Ed.D., joined Tracy Unified School District (TUSD) in 2014, he found a district that had been facing declining enrollment and the associated budget cuts. Dr. Stephens also found a driven and committed group of district leaders, who had been doing everything they could to ensure that students in Tracy were receiving a high-quality education. Teachers were innovating, but on their own, and the district was supporting them as best they could in the face of tens of millions of dollars in forced budget cuts.

Local Control Funding Formula had been applied, but was not effectively driving strategic planning. For the 17,000 students that the district served, Dr. Stephens knew he needed to do something profoundly different. Something that would ensure that students in Tracy were prepared for college and career, and that every adult in the school district was working together to achieve this goal.

He also knew that funding doesn’t drop from the sky, and that he couldn’t be caught every year reacting to the changes in district budgets. Dr. Stephens needed to get in front of the budget process to find money somewhere to turn his vision into reality. And that’s where Pivot came in.

Tracy Unified was invited by Pivot to join a group of districts that were working on an innovative new program, Smarter School Spending. This unprecedented collaboration between the nonprofit and the school district has a singular focus on strategic planning and budgeting to support the district’s success.

The first step: get the heads of business and academics talking together.

Second step: figure out exactly what they were doing that was moving the needle on student achievement. Put money behind that. And replicate it.

Easier said than done.

Undaunted by the journey ahead, Tracy Unified committed to the work. A Design Team of district leaders met with Pivot Learning to move the process forward. So far, they have identified $1.2M that they can better allocate to meet their instructional goals. And they have committed to early literacy and ensuring 9th grade success as the two most important priorities to impact student success.

To build sustainability and capacity for the work, almost 50 school and district leaders are meeting regularly to develop a deeper understanding of the process and tools, and how they can be applied to their budgeting and planning process in alignment.

Even more important—at least as Dr. Stephens sees it—is the learning that they have done about how to engage in a process like this. He commented: “Even if this work were to end tomorrow, the fundamental way we work together as a district has changed, and this collaboration will be felt for years to come.”

Tracy, CA, situated between the San Francisco Bay Area and the Central Valley, is a community originally formed as a stop on the Trans Pacific Railroad. Now, with a population of around 87,000, it is the second largest city in San Joaquin County. TUSD students are 49% Hispanic/Latino, 25% English Language Learners, and 46% of students are eligible for free/reduced lunch.

Pivot Learning is a nonprofit organization of K-12 education experts working shoulder-to-shoulder with schools, districts, and charters to address their biggest challenges in teaching and learning, equitable education spending, and leadership development.