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Collective Participation in Action: Sunnyside Unified School District

How professional learning communities can shift their focus from general advice sessions to detailed problem-solving discussions

This article is part of a series of stories included in The Elements: Transforming Teaching through Curriculum-Based Professional Learning, a challenge paper from Carnegie Corporation of New York that explores how professional learning anchored in high-quality curriculum materials allows teachers to experience the instruction their students will receive and change their instructional practices, leading to better student outcomes.


Professional learning communities have played a major role at Sunnyside Unified School District in Tucson, Arizona, which has struggled with low student achievement in math. Nearly one in five students are English language learners. Some 80 percent come from low-income families, 85 percent are Hispanic, and 4 percent are Native American, as the district straddles First Nations tribal lands.

Sunnyside adopted a problem-based math curriculum in recent years, starting in elementary schools and then expanding to middle and high schools. Illustrative Mathematics is built on student-led activities and relies on teachers to guide student discourse rather than lecture and lead instruction. Rather than focusing on direct instruction and coaching students to practice and get the right answer, Illustrative Mathematics promotes mathematical reasoning through activities and discussion prompts, including by presenting students with problems they may not know how to solve.

“There’s tons of work around setting up structures for students to successfully collaborate, to know students and what they do and don’t understand,” said Max Ray-Riek, director of 6–12 professional learning at Illustrative Mathematics. “To understand the tasks at a really deep level, so you know what the right conversations to be had are, and then being able to sequence and facilitate and connect a discussion that’s based on students’ ideas — it’s really demanding.”

Schedules for Sunnyside’s math teachers included 90 minutes each month to meet in grade-band professional learning communities, but the district only had one math and science coordinator available to lead them. With grant support, Sunnyside enlisted Illustrative Mathematics to provide professional learning materials and instructional coaching with two goals: enhance teachers’ understanding of the curriculum materials and build capacity to support ongoing professional learning.

During the 2019–20 school year, various grade- and school- based professional learning communities met regularly in person and via videoconference to dig into the curriculum materials and identify opportunities to improve instruction. The meetings followed the same instructional routine as an Illustrative Mathematics lesson and focused on different elements.

When you look at everything so closely, it actually makes you realize how important all of those pieces are. That way, you can successfully implement a curriculum. I don’t think I knew how to do that at first.

Melody Salcido, sixth-grade teacher at Mission Manor Elementary School

The impact of the facilitation and focus was clear. For example, when a sixth-grade cohort was discussing how to use the material’s Check Your Readiness pre-unit assessment, teachers discovered a common problem: students were consistently forgetting how to apply the distributive property. They compared notes from classroom discussions and found that the confusion stemmed from variables, not the property itself. Teachers then made sure to share plain-language definitions of variables and give students opportunities to discuss and use them in class, getting to the root of the misconception.

These sorts of experiences helped focus teachers on the curriculum materials and transform their professional learning community meetings from general advice sessions to detailed discussions. Often, meetings were used to determine which aspects of a lesson could be compressed or skipped without compromising student learning — critical to keeping unpredictable discussion-driven classes on track.

“Everything that’s in our curriculum materials is so specific, and it’s very necessary. And I didn’t realize that in my first year,” said Melody Salcido, a sixth-grade teacher at Mission Manor Elementary School. “During our professional learning communities, we’ve taken each piece apart. We looked at preassessment in depth, strategies for English language learners, strategies for students with special needs, the learning goals. When you look at everything so closely, it actually makes you realize how important all of those pieces are. That way, you can successfully implement a curriculum. I don’t think I knew how to do that at first.”

How can we make professional learning work better for teachers and their students?

Discover essential guidance for transforming teaching and student learning by downloading The Elements: Transforming Teaching through Curriculum-Based Professional Learning.


Photo by Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action