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Middle-Grade Science and Math Teachers Go Back to School
Mathematics teachers graduating from DC FAME celebrate at a AAAS reception on 17 May.
For three years after a long day in their own classrooms, 48 Washington, D.C., teachers of middle-grade math or science teachers would arrive at AAAS for three-hour evening classes once a week. Some of them wore workout clothes, many snacked during class, and a few had their children playing quietly on the sidelines. All of them had enthusiastic reasons for why they would devote their time to attending evening and summer classes and meeting in small groups on weekends. Deepening their knowledge as a way to improve their teaching, building their confidence, completing a master's program for free and being eligible for pay raises topped their list of reasons.
The science program DC ACTS (DC Advancing Competencies in Technology and Science) and the mathematics program DC FAME (DC Fellows for the Advancement of Mathematics Education), both administered by AAAS, took the teachers through three years of rigorous study and professional development culminating in a master's degree from The George Washington University (GW).
Last month, the programs produced their first graduates, all of whom have the knowledge to change the teaching of science and math in their schools. "You're ready to go forward and accomplish something that is truly remarkable," Shirley Malcom, head of AAAS's Education and Human Resources Programs, told the graduates, their families and other supporters during a 17 May ceremony at AAAS. "With this, there truly is no child left behind."
Among the 48 teachers was DC ACTS Fellow Ronald Tate. "I'm amazed by how much you can learn after you think you've already learned something," said Tate, from Washington Mathematics and Science Public Charter School. Each Fellow gave a one-minute speech during the ceremony that celebrated the completion of the program.
Middle-grade science and mathematics can be an overlooked wasteland in education, Malcom said. Teachers often jostle between subjects, teaching specific courses—such as geometry or physics—when their math or science training has been more general. To deepen their knowledge and boost their leadership, AAAS and other D.C. organizations developed graduate programs for D.C. middle-grade teachers. With DC ACTS funded by the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education and DC FAME funded by the D.C. Public Schools State Education Agency, the programs were free to the teachers.
The teachers were also honored during a separate graduation ceremony on the GW campus. "The need is crucial to D.C.," said Ali Eskandarian, senior associate dean at GW's College of Professional Studies, which granted the degrees. "Science and math education at the K-12 level is deficient nationwide, but the situation is particularly dire in D.C." By improving the content knowledge of D.C. science and math teachers, DC FAME and DC ACTS aim "to provide the best educational opportunities to the D.C. children," he added.
Each year of the three-year DC ACTS program focused on a different science subject: physical science, earth science, and life science. Middle-grade science teachers are held accountable for teaching each of those subjects, yet many teachers don't have a formal education background in the topics. By deepening their understanding of the material, "they can move more easily between subjects that they're required to teach each year," said Joan Abdallah, AAAS director of DC ACTS. A new three-year program, DC ACTS II, will begin this summer with 25 Fellows pursuing a master's degree in physics education.
Michael Kaspar, director of science for D.C. Public Schools, said that resources for middle-grade science teachers tend to be overlooked and underdeveloped. Kaspar's office provides resources for middle-grade teachers who are assigned to teach a science subject without having a formal academic background in it.
Sixth grade earth science, for instance, could be taught by a teacher who is certified to teach elementary education but whose only science background is an elementary science methods course, which is "not nearly comprehensive enough to teach a whole course in earth science," Kaspar said. "They aren't getting the resources and tools that they need to teach middle-grade science," he added. A similar situation is evident in eighth grade physical science, which is tested according to No Child Left Behind standards.
In addition to coursework, DC ACTS participants gleaned science expertise in tutorials provided by AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellows, scientists and engineers who are working in Congress, the U.S. State Department, and federal agencies under a one-year program. "This has been a strong support mechanism," said Abdallah, who directs K-16 science, mathematics, and technology programs and D.C. initiatives at AAAS' Education and Human Resources Programs. "It helped them get over the challenge of not grasping the entire topic."
A deep knowledge of science is critical for teachers attempting to meet No Child Left Behind standards. But a solid, deep science knowledge base is not easy to come by and is a weakness of science education today, said DC ACTS participant Gloria Allen.
For Allen, DC ACTS was the kind of program she had always been looking for. "Science is constantly changing and updating itself. As science teachers, we need to be as timely as possible," said Allen, who teaches fifth grade science at Plummer Elementary School in southeast D.C.
One of the pitfalls for many science teachers, Allen said, is that because they've been trained as generalists, they have to rely on a textbook to get their science background. But science textbooks aren't always accurate. By gaining greater knowledge through DC ACTS, Allen and her colleagues in the program are better able to evaluate the material they see in textbooks.
DC ACTS was developed to deepen science teachers' knowledge and teaching strategies so that the participants can take their new skills back to their classrooms. But the graduate program had a higher purpose: to drive education reform, an effort that needs more leaders. "It's to be empowered not just in science, but to make teachers aware of looking at all students and to inform what needs to be taught and to be changed," Abdallah said.
With greater leadership skills, knowledge and confidence, the programs' graduates are better equipped to review curriculum, provide leadership as change agents in their schools and throughout the district, and facilitate a dialogue about how best to increase students' achievement of learning goals. "The program is doing what it was designed to do," Abdallah said, citing how several of the participants have become leaders in their schools, such as by meeting with the D.C. public schools' superintendent, assisting with the development of science standards, and providing professional development for administrators
Like the science program DC ACTS, the mathematics program DC FAME aimed to support middle-grade teachers and deepen their knowledge. Also like the DC ACTS graduates, last month's DC FAME graduates earned a master's degree from the College of Professional Studies at George Washington University.
Florence Fasanelli models a crocheted skirt of hyperbolic surfaces—a complex geometric shape that curves as it expands, like a lettuce leaf. The DC Fellows' geometry teacher Dania Taimina made the skirt.
But the DC FAME program was—and is—about developing leadership skills in middle-grade mathematics teachers. "It's a genuine leadership program," said Florence Fasanelli, director of DC FAME at AAAS's Education and Human Resources Programs. "And you can't be a leader unless you know the subject deeply and understand what you're teaching," she said.
The program, which will continue with a new cohort of 24 Fellows on 30 June, requires extensive writing about mathematics as another way to think through the subject. The program even employed a coach to improve the ability of the Fellows to write mathematics clearly and concisely. To further develop their writing, DC FAME Fellows kept journals chronicling their feelings and attitudes toward mathematics. The journals were intended to let the Fellows "look back over their three years of study and see how they changed how they learn," Fasanelli said.
In his final paper, DC FAME Fellow Sam Reheard described how even when he's learned something, it takes time and repetition to understand the topic deeply, which then leads to new discoveries. "There are limits to what my mind can discover and process in a day," wrote Reheard, a mathematics teacher for special education classes at KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) DC. "Reflection is an essential part of the learning process."
Separate from their evenings attending classes at AAAS, the DC FAME participants met in small groups outside of the class where they shared ideas, further expanded their understanding of mathematics and how to think deeply of simple things—the DC FAME's mantra. Esprit de corps developed within the groups, described as "professional and personal" by at least one DC FAME participant. Participants said they would have never made it through the program without their group members, and many groups plan to keep meeting even after their 17 May graduation. Some are already meeting regularly at AAAS to solve problems together.
The DC FAME graduates are already gaining attention for their skills. Since graduation, three of the Fellows have been hired as math coaches in middle schools by D.C. Public Schools. And one Fellow has been hired by American University as a coach for new teachers.
Professional development was embedded in FAME, which began in 1986 as a National Science Foundation program to make elementary teachers math specialists in their schools. Among other activities in the AAAS-GW incarnation of FAME, the participants watched videos of other teachers teaching and analyzed the good and the bad in their lessons, attended professional meetings and served on professional committees.
"So much has been accomplished," said Fasanelli, who has a doctorate in mathematics education. "These wonderful teachers are now able to take over their own professional development in a community of learners, because of the mathematics they have mastered."
25 June 2008