Back to School Nashville: Mia Howard and the Power of Problem Solving

Guest blogger Mia Howard, Founder and CEO of Intrepid College Prep schools.

When I was in first grade and attending NYC public schools in the early nineties, citywide assessments were commonplace. That spring, we took a math exam. I was too young to be nervous or to fully understand its importance – that came in later grades. But I vividly remember the last problem. Students were asked to find the area of a triangle. The shape consisted of unit squares so I counted the unit squares.

When I realized that some of the parts do not cover a complete square, I combined those to make whole squares and then counted them as well. Using that strategy, I derived the area of the triangle. I had no idea if I was right but I turned my exam in with minutes to spare. Not even 5 minutes later, my teacher called me to her desk. Incredulous, my teacher asked me how I solved the problem. Her tone told me that I got it right but it also told me she didn’t expect me to do so. Even at six years old, students can perceive when teachers have low expectations for them.

Tennessee and the Common Core now consider this type of problem par for the course in third grade. I mastered it two years earlier. Low and behold, I got one of the top scores in the city on that exam; my performance was commended with a ceremony, medal and royal blue letterman style jacket with ‘Math Champion’ emblazoned on the back. I still have it stored away in my closet somewhere.

Fast forward twenty-something years later. Six years ago, I had the opportunity to apply for the extremely competitive Building Excellent Schools Fellowship program.  As part of that process, which evaluates readiness to design, found and lead a high-performing school committed to closing the achievement gap, I was asked to analyze a sample school budget. There were terms I was unfamiliar with and the exercise required a variety of math skills that I had to figure out how to put together to evaluate the health of the school and make key decisions – all with no prior experience in school administration. I relied on critical-reasoning skills that I’ve been developing since elementary school, thanks to some great teachers, and demonstrated a solid understanding of charter school finance basics. Even better, I was granted the opportunity of a lifetime – a chance to build Intrepid College Prep, a successful middle and high school in Nashville.

What these two experiences demonstrate is that students and young people only realize their full potential when they are stretched academically and given the opportunity to engage in productive struggle while tackling problems that allow them to leverage what they do know to figure out something they do not know. Still, it took me a long time to apply that understanding to the way we teach mathematics at Intrepid College Prep.

We implemented the Tennessee standards, which borrow heavily from the Common Core, but until recently we focused too much on rote memorization and procedural skill and not enough on helping kids understand the concepts behind the problems, and how to apply their knowledge. In doing so, I confronted another iteration of the bias held by my first-grade teacher – lowering expectations for our students based on their academic challenges in math. It was evident when I walked into a classroom and saw students struggle to put their thinking on paper. It was evident when I listened to student discussions about math and noticed that their ideas were often incoherent. They struggled, in part, because we didn’t give them adequate time and support to engage in productive struggle.

However, one of the bright spots of our organization is knowing what we don’t know and asking for help. Earlier this year we reached out to The Achievement Network to help us diagnose the problem and design a plan of attack. After months of observation and planning, we are excited to shift our approach to teaching in three different ways starting this fall that we believe will increase math knowledge, understanding and performance.

What We’re Changing

  • Study the major work in every grade to understand the demands and aspects of rigor called for by the standards.  Use the language of the standards to implement specific and varied instructional practices based on each aspect of rigor – conceptual understanding, procedural skill and fluency, and application.


  • Pose high-quality questions and problems to engage students in meaningful work and discussion and deliberately check for understanding.


  • Shift teacher development from creating materials to internalizing content.

Our Key Investments

We invested in leadership and teacher coaching to support these priorities. We also decided to fully adopt the Eureka Math curriculum from UnboundEd, which teaches students and teachers how to excel in math using a variety of aligned instructional practices while increasing student ownership of each lesson. With support from professors at The Wharton School, we have also designed a financial literacy curriculum that has an interdisciplinary focus on using the humanities and conceptual understanding of math to create social entrepreneurs. We will give our students exposure to real world problem solving about issues that are meaningful to them. Students will use critical reasoning skills and their understanding of literacy, the social sciences, and mathematics to design solutions to pressing social issues.

Our Key People

Our teachers will bring these shifts to life but these instructional shifts also live and breathe across our organization. This summer we shared these instructional priorities with our network team and our campus leaders and together we examined what effective teacher and student practices must be evident to signal that the shifts are increasing student achievement qualitatively and quantitatively. We expect every leader, including members of our operations team, to be able to describe these shifts and gather evidence of success when they are in classrooms.

Most importantly, we restructured principal responsibilities to make sure that our principals are equipped with the resources and skills to support these shifts in classrooms every day. We’ve designed the principal role around their ability to spend 50% time in classrooms and we’ve added Operations Associates to each campus to provide more administrative support that will protect that dedicated instructional time. We each have a unique role to play in supporting instruction. As adults, the importance of teamwork to solve problems is clear. Our schools bear the responsibility of giving students similar experiences inside and outside the classroom.

Our Key Takeaways

For any teachers or leaders struggling to make the more rigorous math standards come alive in the classroom, know that you are not alone.  On those days when math is messy and you feel tempted to rein it in and go back to teacher-controlled classrooms, lean in even more. When parents complain that we’re teaching math the “wrong” way, persevere. Reach out to schools and leaders that are data-proven and observe their math classrooms. Study the teacher actions pre-, during and post-lesson to understand how teachers internalize math content and develop confidence in the various ways to solve problems while addressing student misconceptions. Rise to rigor. A world where our students are the future problem-solvers depends on it.


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