Series: About the Collaborative

Collaborative Math: Creating Sustainable Excellence for Head Start Programs

Collaborative Math: Creating Sustainable Excellence for Head Start Programs
sustainable excellence math head start

Early childhood center leaders play a crucial role in improving and sustaining program quality. New research supports the idea that involving center leaders in PD initiatives is a way to produce lasting systemic change.

Research on effective professional development (PD) is clear that there must be school-embedded systems to provide ongoing, on-the-job support for teachers to grow their practice.

Collaborative Math takes such a “whole-center” approach to PD by bringing together center leaders and the entire teaching staff around the shared purpose of improving preschool math learning.

With funding from the National Science Foundation, researchers from Erikson Institute, SRI International, and Digital Promise designed Collaborative Math to build on the strengths of and respond to the needs of Head Start teachers to create centers of mathematical excellence.

A Whole-Center Approach to Professional Development

Collaborative Math is a 1-year program designed to foster, celebrate, and sustain high impact, developmentally appropriate mathematics instruction in Head Start centers. It is guided by the premise that teaching improvement is driven by the support and development of teachers’ knowledge, confidence, and practice. Collaborative Math brings together leadership (directors and education coordinators) and all teaching staff (i.e., lead teachers, assistant teachers, and paraprofessionals) from multiple Head Start centers to study early mathematics. Center leaders and teachers return to their sites to implement what they learn with project support.

Teachers and center leaders participated in six cycles of workshops, coaching, and consultation focused on sets and sorting, number sense, and shape. Each 4-week cycle began with a 3.5-hour off-site learning lab for center leaders and teachers, followed by a 4-hour leadership training for center leaders. Then, center leaders participated in up to 2 hours of on-site consultation from an Erikson math coach. The focus of consultation was supporting classroom coaching activities and implementing center wide core components of the Collaborative Math program.

Erikson coaches also provided on-site coaching to classroom teaching teams. Coaching teachers in teams represents an innovative approach, designed to support collaborative work among all staff in a single classroom. Each classroom coaching cycle consisted of three 30-minute sessions – a planning meeting, a classroom observation, and a reflecting meeting.

Center leaders held a dual role:

  1. help sustain coaching cycle meetings, including coordinating coverage as needed; and
  2. participate in one coaching cycle per month alongside their Erikson coach, rotating through all the participating teaching teams at their site.

With support from the Erikson coach, center leaders and teaching staff implemented center-wide math lessons, family math activities, and a center-wide celebration of math learning. Center leaders also assisted in the set up and maintenance of classroom math resource libraries and displays documenting math-related activities to share with others at the site.

Development and Evaluation

Over the course of three years, 31 centers, 57 center leaders, 209 teachers, and 1,508 children participated in the project. During the first year, three centers helped to develop and pilot the intervention. During the second and third years, two evaluation studies examined whether Collaborative Math had positive impacts on teacher, center leaders, and child outcomes.

  • Study 1 (2016-17 school year): Researchers randomly assigned 28 centers to participate in the PD or continue to implement business-as-usual math lessons.
  • Study 2 (2017-18 school year): Researchers worked with the centers who did not participate in the PD during the previous year.
  • Study 3 (2017-18 school year): Researchers followed the treatment centers from the 2016-17 school year to examine sustainability.

Center leader and teacher outcomes included measures of math content knowledge, confidence in math teaching, math instructional practice for teachers, and math leadership practice for center leaders. Child outcomes included two standardized measures of mathematics knowledge and skills.


Participation in Collaborative Math led to improved confidence in math teaching for teachers and center leaders at the end of each evaluation study (see Figure 1). Children attending centers that participated in the PD during Study 2 outperformed their peers who participated during Study 1 on one of the math measures. During the follow-up year, Study 3, teachers who participated in Collaborative Math the previous year reported continuing to implement program activities such as math games, transition activities, and family engagement. Both center leaders and teachers indicated a desire to continue coaching and use of Collaborative Math approaches.


The project’s findings have important implications for providing PD in Head Start and other early childhood education settings. Early childhood center leaders play a crucial role in improving and sustaining program quality. Involving center leaders in PD initiatives can produce lasting systemic change. If the organization as a whole changes, teachers will not have to take sole responsibility for continuing program effects but will instead be supported by—and continue to contribute to—a professional learning community focused on mathematics.

Importantly, the outcomes of this project suggest that a one-year PD intervention may not be sufficient to cause long lasting, systemic changes in teacher practice and student learning outcomes in early childhood settings. More robust effects on child outcomes may only emerge after the PD model has been implemented successfully over a longer period of time.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant DRL-1503486. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Photo by Yan Krukov