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Using Exemplars for School Improvement

By Tammy Krejcarek, Assistant Principal, Virginia

Several years ago, I was hired as a math specialist to help a school entering school improvement status. Our math scores were the lowest in the county, and our disparity gap was over 30 points. One of the first changes we made was to implement Exemplars. I began by training my teachers on how to lead students in math talk while sharing their various strategies for solving the problems. I found the anchor papers were a great place to start when introducing Exemplars to students, as they promote that rich discussion you are looking for. The built-in rubrics teach students how to self-evaluate their progress from one Exemplars task to another. The rubrics also offer teachers a tool for providing timely and meaningful feedback to students. One of the key benefits of Exemplars is that students don’t have to get to the correct answer in order to be successful or to stretch their thinking. The dynamics of students sharing and discussing their thought processes with one another is what’s so invaluable — it is NOT always about the answer; it’s about the process. Exemplars allows students to explore strategies without the pressure of getting a “bad” grade.

We started doing Exemplars school wide every Friday during math time. Depending on the focus, we worked as a whole group, in smaller groups, as partners and sometimes individually. Our students quickly learned from one another how to represent their thinking with pictures AND words, as well as how to create tables and diagrams. These strategies helped students organize information into a format they could understand without being overwhelmed. Because Exemplars tasks are based on real-world situations, they provided relevant and engaging context from which the students could make meaning. The organization of the tasks into strands and concepts made it easy for teachers to correlate Exemplars with their mathematics lessons. The tiered levels allowed for differentiated instruction to ensure the success of ALL students.

That first year we implemented the program, our math scores increased by over 30 points to well above passing while decreasing the disparity gap to within 10 points. That was five years ago, and Exemplars is still thriving. Based on this success, most schools in the district are now implementing Exemplars into their mathematics program.

This year, I am at a new district that is excited to begin using Exemplars in their buildings. With the increasing rigorous demand of high-stakes testing, Exemplars is a “must-have” component to any mathematics program. I have been in education for over 18 years and have seen programs come and go. Exemplars is one of the few initiatives that has proved effective time and time again!

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