AAAS Joins Innovative Effort To Improve Math Skills In D.C. Public Schools
More than three dozen Washington, D.C., math teachers are back in the classroom this fallthe only difference this year, however, is that they're the ones learning. Twenty teachers have joined a class of 17 already enrolled in a three-year professional master's degree program in middle-school mathematics, a new degree offered by The George Washington University in partnership with AAAS and the D.C. Public School System.
Known as DC FAME (DC Fellows for the Advancement of Mathematics Education), the new program was created in order to address the most important component of middle school math education: teachers' content knowledge.
Students' low performance is often blamed on poverty and environmental factors, but it can also be traced to the fact that their well-meaning teachers are insufficiently prepared to teach math.
"Teachers' content knowledge has to be deep," said Shirley Malcom, director of AAAS Education and Human Resources Programs. "Otherwise, they will not have alternative strategies of teaching different types of students with different needs." Malcom said she has seen teachers tell students that correct answers were incorrect simply because students didn't use the strategy presented in the text.
Research shows that students are slipping somewhere in the middle grades, according to the head of the George Washington (GW) Mathematics Department, Dan Ullman, who taught a program course this summer to D.C. district math teachers at AAAS.
"At least through grades 3 or 4, kids are not harmed too much by teachers whose math content knowledge is lacking," Ullman explained. "In high school, the teachers are akin to professional mathematicians. They love mathematics, they excel in mathematics, in college they majored in mathematics. The middle grades often see the worst of both worlds. The teachers' content knowledge might be like the elementary teachers, but
the students need the support of teachers who are like the high school teachers."
In fact, those years are a "wasteland of math," said Michelle Johncock, a math teacher at the District's Edmund Burke School who's in her second year of the program. During the middle-grade years, she explains, students are stranded between already having learned basic arithmetic skills in elementary school and waiting until high school to learn formal algebra skills.
"Between the two," Johncock said, "nobody quite knows what to do with middle-schoolers."
AAAS and its partners received a $1.5 million grant for this program from the D.C. State Education Office, through the Mathematics and Science Partnership Program of the U.S. Department of Education (DOE). They've also received additional funding for a complementary program in science, which will begin late this autumn.
The staff of Project 2061, the AAAS program that laid the groundwork for the nationwide science standards movement in the 1990s, conducted seminars this summer for GW faculty to assist them in designing courses for the new master's program by using the Project's "Benchmarks for Science Literacy," which set math and science learning standards for grades K-12 and is commonly drawn from by today's state and national standards documents.
The unique aspect of the new master's programsand a requirement by the DOEis that GW professors teaching the courses for the master's programs are from the university's mathematics and science departments, rather than its school of education
"In general, schools of education tend to focus more on methodology and assessment," explained Ali Eskandarian, associate dean of GW's College of Professional Studies, which will grant the master's degree. "The new degrees will be focused on content knowledge."
Teachers enrolled in DC FAME take one course at AAAS during each regular school semester, since they are also teaching and doing other activities required for this program. In summer, they take an additional course or two. During the school year, they meet with leading mathematics educators in the country; meet with each other for several hours each week to practice mathematics; and visit each other's classes to see different teachings styles. They each also coach up to five peers per week for the duration of the program, so that, potentially, every middle-grades teacher in the District can be reached by the program.
"I have windows into 17 other classrooms," said Johncock. "How cool is that?" Johncock applied for the program because she liked the idea of taking classes that would invigorate her and constantly give her something to bring back to her class. "I have a much better understanding of the material that I teach and the terms that I use," she said. "Any time you know more, you can answer questions in many different ways."
Not only does deep content knowledge of their subject give teachers confidence, it allows them to be able to frame lessons in many different ways to appeal to the various learning styles of their students.
"The DC FAME program has aspects which should improve mathematics teaching and hence learning in D.C. at several levels," explained Florence Fasanelli, director of DC FAME at AAAS. "At the student level, because the teachers are more comfortable with the material; at the teacher level, because the teachers get the opportunity to actually do the mathematics that they find challenging; and at the collegiate level, because professors are working with the teachers and testing their own need to improve education."
6 October 2005