Progressive Math InstituteMaybe you’ve heard of them, but do you know how to teach to them?

Educators across the nation are trying to grasp the opportunities, challenges, and implications that the Common Core State Standards in mathematics present for teacher practice and student learning. The standards, released in 2010, are intended to provide a common measure for academic knowledge and college and career readiness skills.

On one level, “we’re all in the same boat,” according to Ronarae Adams, director of the Professional Teaching Development Center for the National University School of Education. “The common core standards were adopted and educators are accountable for making sure they are implemented into daily classroom practice.”  But Adams notes that not all teachers “are in the same place.” Familiarity with the standards and what teaching and learning aligned to the common core looks like varies widely, from educator to educator, and school to school.

With this wide gap in understanding the standards it’s worth asking: How common is the common core?

Support for educators

For the standards to drive the intended outcomes, educators need support as they fuse the new common core into classroom instructional practices.  For some, this is an easy transition. But other teachers are trying to wrap their heads around how a classroom that is aligned to the mathematics practices outlined in the common core operates.

“The Progressive Mathematics Initiative (PMI) is leveling the playing field,” notes Melissa Axelsson, mathematics program manager for the N.J. Center for Teaching and Learning and leader of its K-8 PMI curriculum development project. “PMI is helping educators effectively and efficiently implement the new common core standards and mathematics practices.”

PMI is a teacher-developed program with units of instruction designed for K-12 mathematics instruction that supports high levels of student achievement in mathematics. It was created by NJ CTL. All materials – including presentations with built-in formative assessment, class work, homework, and assessments – are free and available online for immediate use at

First developed to support the teaching of pre-algebra and algebra, PMI was then expanded to include high school mathematics courses through Advanced Placement calculus and K-8 courses, all aligned to the common core.

But when NJ CTL brought teams of math teachers together to create rigorous units of mathematics instruction to improve student achievement, the common core standards had not yet been adopted. With the introduction of the new standards, NJ CTL had teacher teams revisit the PMI units using a keen eye to make sure they meet the challenges in terms of content depth and breadth, rigor, skills and methodology. “We are excited to see that PMI is a great model of something that is working for our teachers and students and integrates the common core standards,” noted Axelsson.

PMI’s digital content is organized around instructional presentations, homework, and student assessments. The unit presentations are available in SMART Notebook files but can also be used with other interactive white boards and will soon be available in PowerPoint format. Educators can register on the NJ CTL website to gain access to additional free student assessments.  

The teacher-created instructional units will assist educators regardless of where they are in their own understanding of the common core. And since PMI units are freely accessible to everyone via the internet, the common core has the potential to have beneficial outcomes that are common for all.

“I was so impressed to see the parallels between the PMI approach and what is valued in the new common core standards,” said Adams, who attended NJ CTL’s 2011 conference. “PMI can help our students be college and career ready.”

PMI: a testimony, part I

Melissa Axelsson helped to build PMI from the ground up when she was a grades 5-8 special education teacher who taught science and mathematics in Egg Harbor City for 11 years. Here’s why she believes PMI will support teachers in their efforts to raise student achievement:

Axelsson on the impact of PMI on student learning: “One of the most impressive things I’ve experienced is the impact of PMI’s student response systems on instruction. Students love the handheld responders, which promote more student engagement in the lesson. It’s a really lively, comfortable class environment.

“I also love that I’m able to turn an incorrect answer into a teachable moment. PMI units don’t reveal the “right” answer, but instead focus on how students derived the answer. And many of the “wrong” answers are designed to help a teacher see mistakes that are common to that particular topic.  We have had really wonderful student discussions based on their responses. By the time I reveal the answer, the students already know it from talking to their peers. It’s a timely and effective tool – and fun for the kids.  PMI allows me to be more of a facilitator of student learning, where I guide their understanding; it has changed my role in the classroom.

“The student feedback feature helps me pace instruction. Now students drive the pace of instruction based on their responses to the formative assessment questions.”

Axelsson on the impact of PMI on teaching: “Teacher collaboration is a key aspect of PMI. I work in a small school where we have one math teacher per grade. When we started using the PMI approach, we needed to work together to make sure that we aligned all of the content strands, from grade to grade. This was a big investment for all of us because we were committing to taking ownership of specific content and agreeing to make sure we taught it. There was increased teacher accountability.

“We learned to support each other to make sure we could teach what we needed to teach. We learned how to reflect on what students were learning and how to make changes in the curriculum where needed.

“We began by trying to define Algebra I. What is it? What does it look like in the common core? How can we build on student understanding of Algebra I concepts from grade to grade? We started with defining what it should be in the eighth grade and working backwards, grade by grade, all the way to kindergarten. It was hard work. We worked together with our elementary school teachers through joint  meetings and we defined what numerical operations skills needed to be stressed in each grade. Teachers then started to pass this information on at the end of the school year, so that next year’s teachers knew what the students had mastered.”

PMI: a testimony, part II

John Getz is a 20-year veteran mathematics teacher, currently teaching at Vernon Township High School. He received National Board Certification in 2007 and is an NJ CTL Mathematics Fellow who leads the high school PMI curriculum development work.

Getz on the impact of PMI on student learning: The PMI design allows for more rigorous pacing and a deeper level of understanding of the math content for students, including those who traditionally struggle with math. I attribute this to the cohesiveness of the unit design, the scaffolding of the content, and especially to the methods used in the PMI approach--most significant for the struggling student is the social constructivist approach to solving complex problems. 

“Students like that they can reassure themselves by asking classmates about a topic that is giving them trouble. Jenna, a two-year student of mine, likes that she is ‘engaged in the material and gets to work with the topics.’ She ‘likes to discuss [answers] with others before entering them’ in handheld responders. Traditionally, students are asked to work alone to solve problems but this can be challenging for many students.

“The PMI approach requires student collaboration to solve problems so that all students are engaged in the learning. The students explain topics in ‘student-speak,’ which facilitates student learning. There's nothing more thrilling for a teacher than seeing the ‘I get it’ look on a student's face and knowing that it’s deeper, more rigorous understanding of the concept.

“The handheld responders change the dynamic of the classroom. I no longer ask ‘Are there any questions?’ I can see if there are any questions based on student responses. There is a consistency to the program so that the responder questions look like homework questions, which look like quiz questions, which look like test questions. Students still ask questions about the content but I no longer hear, ‘I got it in class but the homework was completely different.’”

Getz on the impact of PMI on teaching: The technology used (Interactive White Boards and Response Systems) provides a way for teachers to collaborate on curriculum and instruction. The content is in a digital format, which facilitates collaboration among teachers. We can share the teaching materials with someone to determine if the rigor and depth needed is embedded in the unit. In the past my lesson plans were unique to me but now I can share my SMART Notebook slides in meetings with my peers. But when I don't have the luxury of face-to-face time, I can share with my peers online. I always thought that what I was teaching had the depth it needed and was clear for students to understand; now I can be sure. This process allows us to make our teaching and student learning transparent.

“A few years ago I attended a session and the presenter shared the need for educators to delve deeply into what student learning is and what it looks like, and he challenged us to think about how we will know if students learned. Using the PMI units has brought clarity to what student learning looks like and how we know if they have learned. Making this transparent has helped me more effectively collaborate with my peers.”

A retired social studies teacher, Peggy Stewart is the director of communication and teacher learning for the N.J. Center for Teaching and Learning and serves as the chair of the N.J. Professional Teaching Standards Board. She taught at Vernon Township High School for 20 years. You can follow Stewart on Twitter and email her at

Be on the lookout for new Review column on NJ CTL

With so many exciting initiatives underway, the N.J. Center for Teaching and Learning (NJ CTL) will be the focus of a new column in the NJEA Review. Look for articles on the center’s Progressive Science Institute, its County Teacher of the Year program.  

Learn more about NJ CTL and its professional development/certification programs at