Mathematicians Take Part in State and National Initiatives

Mathematicians Take Part in State and National Initiatives

By Reid Oslin
Staff Writer

Two Mathematics Department faculty recently saw their efforts to help boost math test scores among Massachusetts middle-schoolers rewarded, while one of their colleagues joined a major federally funded initiative to prepare the country's next generation of math and science teachers.

Earlier in the fall, the Boston College Mathematics Institute received a three-year $300,000 grant extension from the Raytheon Corp. to continue its Partnerships Promoting Student Achievement in Mathematics, a project begun in 1999 to implement the Connected Mathematics Program for middle school students in several Massachusetts school systems.

Also this semester, Prof. Solomon Friedberg was appointed to the Math-Science Initiative Support Project, a blue-ribbon committee funded by the United States Department of Education to focus on the training of future elementary and middle school teachers.

The Mathematics Institute's PPSAM program, headed by Prof. Margaret Kenney and Professional Researcher Anne Collins, has already generated documented improvements in mathematics test scores among middle school students in the Fall River, Lawrence and Holyoke public schools, which have been among the lowest-scoring districts in the MCAS.

"Holyoke had some of the worst test scores in the state," Collins noted. "Now, many of the children in the schools in which I am working are passing the MCAS tests.

"In Lawrence, sixth grade students in eight of 11 schools have passed the mathematics test," she said. "It takes at least three years to see this kind of improvement."

Kenney, assistant director of the institute and PPSAM project director, and Collins, the project's principal investigator, credit the program's multi-faceted approach, which involves coaching educators in the latest mathematics materials, monitoring classroom instructional strategies and dynamics and working with parents to improve the students' home study skills.

"We have seen in test results that overall, students in these urban schools are OK in mathematics up to the fourth grade," Collins said, "but they start to show some serious difficulties by the eighth grade. We are trying to rectify those gaps to change whatever was not working."

"It's the firing line," said Kenney. "If these children are to have hopes of getting into college, you have to strike early and give them a good foundation."

Besides organizing weeklong summer academies for middle school mathematics teachers, Collins travels to the schools five days a week during the academic year "as a coach and a critical friend of teachers, sometimes as a co-teacher," she says. She also presides over meetings during which parents are given instruction in selected mathematics units their children are studying.

In addition, Collins works with several retired Raytheon executives who have volunteered to assist mathematics students in the target schools.

Kenney said that Raytheon sponsors are pleased with the program's success. The company helped one Lawrence school celebrate its achievements by sending several of its executives to accompany US Rep. Martin Meehan (D-Mass.) to meet the students and teachers.

Meanwhile, Friedberg and his fellow Math-Science Initiative Support Project members began their task with a meeting on Nov. 7 at the Department of Education headquarters in Washington, DC.

"Our initial perception is that most elementary-level teachers have spent a lot of time and energy learning language skills in an effort to help children learn how to read," Friedberg said. "A lot less preparation time has been devoted to learning math skills. We would like to see the next generation of teachers and students empowered in mathematics as well."

Friedberg noted that some states currently require prospective elementary school teachers to take only a single semester course in the teaching of math, and no courses at all focusing on mathematics subject knowledge. "It's quite possible that the group will develop a consensus that would bring about a more comprehensive curriculum in mathematics," he said, "perhaps as much as two full years of math in a teacher curriculum. It could make a tremendous difference."

The group hopes to make final recommendations by late next year, according to Friedberg.


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