Crane Elementary Schools Increase Equity and Help Students Develop Lifelong Math Skills

Crane Elementary School District No. 13 in Yuma, Ariz., enrolls more than 6,300 students in nine elementary and two middle schools. All schools offer free breakfast and lunch to all students, and more than 16% of students are English language learners (ELLs). To support 21st century learning, all students have an Apple iPad and all instructional staff have a MacBook Air and an iPad.


  • high poverty rate
  • large percentage of ELLs
  • difficulty finding a problem-based math curriculum built around focus, coherence, and rigor
  • difficulty finding a freely available curriculum with embedded teacher supports and resources for problem-based instruction

“After the Common Core State Standards were introduced, there was a shift in rigor and teachers were expected to teach math much differently,” said Tara Fulton, district math coordinator for Crane Schools. “Rather than the teacher-centric ‘I do, we do, you do’ approach, we wanted to teach mathematics through problem solving with the learner at the forefront, allowing skills and ideas to emerge from working through rich math tasks. We had engaged in trainings on a problem-based model of teaching, but it was difficult to find a curriculum that met our needs. One issue, particularly with open educational resources (OER), was that they didn’t provide enough teacher support to help make problem-based learning happen in the classroom. Another was that many curriculum programs had the ‘do-as-I-show-you’ approach, leaving reasoning and problem solving to come only at the end of a lesson.”

To fill the gap, a district team worked to create its own digital curriculum platform for grades K–8. “We wanted teachers to have autonomy and choice, rather than be tied to a specific curriculum, especially one that was not teaching student-centered mathematics. So, we created a curated platform of materials from a variety of resources. We provided information on standards and progressions, and how to teach mathematics for understanding. While some teachers liked that, many others wanted a more structured curriculum that they could teach lesson by lesson and then add their own flair. That’s when we decided to look at Illustrative Mathematics (IM),” said Fulton.

Crane Schools reviewed a freely available version of IM 6–8 Math, which is offered by IM Certified Partner Kendall Hunt. “It was very well-received by our middle school teachers,” said Fulton. “They liked the predictable structure of every IM Math lesson. They also appreciated getting to see how a problem-based approach would look in their own classrooms.”


Crane Schools began using IM 6–8 Math in fall 2018 and started piloting IM K–5 Math alpha with a few teacher teams in fall 2019. “Because IM Math had such a great reception with our middle school teachers, we wanted to offer that option to our K–5 teachers, too,” said Fulton.

Both IM K–5 Math and IM 6–8 Math are part of IM K–12 Math, a problem-based core curriculum designed to address content and practice standards to foster learning for all. Students learn by doing math, solving problems in mathematical and real-world contexts, and constructing arguments using precise language. Teachers can facilitate student learning with high-leverage routines to guide learners to understand and make connections. 

During the 2019–20 school year, each elementary school implemented the IM K–5 Math curriculum with a different grade level. In fall 2020, Crane Schools expanded its IM K–5 Math beta pilot to include grades 2–5 at all five elementary schools. Each school had the option to invite K–1 teachers to participate as well. 

Making the shift to a problem-based curriculum

To prepare for the curriculum rollout, teachers attended two days of IM Certified Professional Learning. The professional learning was delivered by IM Certified Facilitators who work hand-in-hand with the authors of the curriculum to share a deep understanding of the mathematics and pedagogical approaches across grade levels, units, and lessons. 

“We want to give teachers a clear picture of how to make problem-based learning happen in their classrooms because it’s very different from how we learned math,” said Fulton. “I give IM high marks for doing that.”

Implementing a consistent lesson structure

IM K–5 Math beta is built around focus, coherence, and rigor, and is fully aligned to college and career-ready standards to prepare students for success with mathematics. Each lesson includes an invitational warm-up, problem-based activity, activity synthesis, lesson synthesis, and cool-down. 

“With IM, there’s a consistent structure to every lesson. This is very helpful in a classroom setting because students know what to expect and how things flow,” said Fulton. “IM lays out the curriculum in a way that invites learners into the math, then allows the teacher to become more of a facilitator as students solve problems to learn mathematics. As the lesson progresses, the teacher listens to student conversations, looks at student work, and makes instructional decisions based on the mathematical ideas that students are coming up with to push their learning forward. As a 1:1 district, many of our teachers are Apple certified and very creative in coming up with ways for students to share their work. Students might record and share a short video using Flipgrid or create a presentation using Keynote to summarize and synthesize their learning. It can look very different from classroom to classroom because of the technology resources teachers use and all the ways they can collect student artifacts.” 

With IM K–5 Math beta, teachers are also supported with a variety of materials such as side-by-side lesson plan views of student activities and teacher directions, and guidance for each element of the lesson. 

“Teachers like having a complete curriculum with high-quality mathematics tasks that allow students to learn for deep understanding,” said Fulton. “They like that they no longer have to hunt for activities and then design a lesson. Lessons are provided with teacher support on how to facilitate classroom discourse and encourage students’ use of multiple representations as tools for problem solving, reasoning, and communication. IM has changed how our math classrooms run.”

Ensuring coherence

IM ensures curricular coherence within and across grade levels. Each grade level of IM K–5 Math beta is made up of eight carefully sequenced and standards-aligned units designed to tell a coherent mathematical story. 

“With IM, teachers can see how the standards connect and tell this incredible mathematical story. For example, a teacher who has never taught the prior grade level learns about prerequisite skills that students need to access the content in the current unit through IM, and uses that knowledge as an on-ramp to keep students progressing in their learning,” said Fulton. “IM also has new resources with supports for distance learning and addressing unfinished learning, which are very helpful this year.”

Supporting diverse learners

To support diverse learners, IM K–5 Math beta includes built-in supports for ELLs, students with disabilities, advanced learners, and those below benchmark.

“When teachers are planning their lessons, it can be difficult to be mindful of the diversity of learners in the classroom and figure out how to support each group. In the IM curriculum, those supports have already been woven into the lessons. Equitable learning experiences are built in for every group, and IM does it wonderfully,” said Fulton.


  • increased coherence within and across units and grade levels
  • increased student interest and excitement in math
  • increased student ownership of learning
  • increased equity and access to rigorous mathematics
  • increased student discourse and collaboration
  • increased retention

Since implementing IM K–5 Math beta, the district has seen many positive changes in its elementary math classrooms. 

Exciting students about math and building community

One of the biggest changes that has happened since we began using IM K–5 Math beta is that teachers are now inviting students to the math. That didn’t always happen before,” said Fulton. “Starting with an instructional routine like Notice and Wonder is much more engaging and welcoming than saying, ‘Turn to page 42.’ Having an invitation to the math gets kids excited. It captures their interest and shows them that math doesn’t have to be intimidating. It builds community.” 

Increased ownership of learning

“With IM, the teacher is no longer the keeper of math knowledge but allows students to learn new mathematical content by figuring out their own strategies and solutions,” said Fulton. “Before, the instructional model was stand and deliver with the teacher doing most of the thinking and explaining. With IM, students are now allowed to explore, grapple with, and work through problems. Teachers listen to students, watch them work, and ask probing questions to guide their thinking. They teach mathematics through problem solving, allowing them to provide just-in-time support if it’s needed, rather than just-in-case support which can take up valuable instructional time.”

Increasing equity and access

“One of the main benefits of the IM curriculum has been in addressing equity and access in our schools. As much as we try in our district to have equitable learning experiences for all students, when you also want to allow for teacher autonomy, you sometimes end up with inequities. As students respond to the activities in IM, teachers are able to uncover learning gaps and provide activities that get to a depth of knowledge that students may not have been getting to before,” said Fulton. 

“For example, in a special education or ELL classroom, the teacher may water down the content, thinking it helps the students, when in actuality it removes their access to grade-level material and quality problem types. With IM, the focus is on equity and access so that all students can engage in rigorous grade-level content,” she said.

Building lifelong learners

With IM’s uplifting, engaging, and inclusive approach to mathematics, Crane students are developing skills, understandings, and practices that will stay with them for a lifetime.

“Because much of the work in IM is done collaboratively, it helps students learn how to work together and come to consensus, construct viable arguments, and critique the reasoning of others. It also helps them develop speaking and listening skills that tie in with our English language arts standards. These are skills they can use in their educational careers and throughout their lives,” said Fulton.

“For teachers, IM provides a clear picture of a problem-based approach so they can teach differently than they were taught. The curriculum not only focuses on procedural skill and fluency, but on conceptual understanding and application as well. Our teachers really like this because it shows students how and why math procedures work. 

“The coherence piece is big, too,” she said. “As students move from one grade level to the next, they see the mathematical connections so they have better retention. They also have an easier transition because they’ve already been exposed to the IM lesson structure and supports. When teachers see how well their incoming class is doing and say, ‘We need IM for all our grades!’, then I know things are working and changing for the better. Teachers recognize how well students are doing because they’ve been using the IM curriculum across multiple grades.”