March 2, 2000
Vol. 19 No. 11

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    Mathematics program continues its training of public school teachers

    By Steve Koppes
    News Office

    Mathematics education specialist Linda Hunt of Oak Park, Ill., began making 50-mile, round-trip commutes to the University in 1995, just so she could take a series of mathematics courses she had completed as a graduate student elsewhere.

    “Here I am, working on the Northwest Side, and I’m driving all the way to the University of Chicago to take classes I’ve already taken because they’re being done so well, so deeply and so seriously that it’s just worth it,” Hunt said.

    Now in charge of the mathematics curriculum at O.A. Thorp Scholastic Academy in Chicago, Hunt still commutes to the University to teach those classes in which she was once enrolled.

    Called Seminars for Elementary Specialists and Mathematics Educators, the program has served 600 teachers from 150 Chicago public schools since its founding in 1991. SESAME has just opened its doors to another 105 teachers from 40 schools to begin its next three-year, staff-development program.

    “The mathematics background elementary-school teachers receive is atrocious––little or none,” said SESAME’s founder, Paul Sally Jr., Professor in Mathematics. SESAME reflects the remedy in its motto: “To teach real mathematics, you better know some.”

    His motto may sound tough, but Sally is no academic drill sergeant running a boot camp for mathematicians. SESAME offers a warm and accepting––yet challenging–– learning environment, according to the program brochure.

    “We also try to dispel the mathematics anxiety that a lot of people have,” said Yalonda Mason, Assistant Director of SESAME.

    Mathematics teachers in the Chicago Public Schools use a variety of textbooks and curricula; SESAME aims to equip teachers with a deep, conceptual knowledge that will allow them to deliver good mathematics lessons to their students in any curriculum.

    “Everywhere I go, I pound the table: train the teachers, and you won’t have to worry about curricula,” Sally said.

    Many teachers enroll in the SESAME program to complete coursework that the Illinois State Endorsement in the Teaching of Middle School Mathematics requires. Such endorsement qualifies teachers as state mathematics-teaching specialists––allowing them to spend more than half the school day teaching the subject in Illinois schools.

    “There’s an enormous shortage of mathematics specialists in the country, and its going to get nothing but bigger,” Sally said. “Principals are getting very aggressive about hiring specialists to teach mathematics.”

    The new principles and standards for school mathematics developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics may further contribute to this demand for specialists. The council is scheduled to release the new principles and standards, which would place greater demands on both students and teachers, at the opening session of its annual meeting in Chicago on April 12.

    The new principles and standards follow in the wake of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, for which Sally was a member of the U.S. steering committee. Completed in 1997, the study was funded in part by the National Center for Education Statistics, part of the U.S. Department of Education; the National Science Foundation; and the Canadian government. The study provided a comparative assessment of educational achievement in mathematics and science in approximately 50 countries and the factors that contribute to that achievement.

    “What came out of the study was that relative to our eighth- and 12th-graders, our fourth-graders were doing pretty well in mathematics. They scored slightly above the international average. Our eighth-graders were doing less well, and our 12th-graders were doing poorly,” Hunt said.

    Another factor that could help fuel the demand for specialists, at least locally, is the Chicago Public Schools’ expanded commitment to the International Baccalaureate Program. Created by a private foundation in Geneva, Switzerland, the IB program emphasizes world studies in a rigorous academic program, and selected schools throughout the city offer it. Chicago’s IB mathematics teachers will begin taking specially developed SESAME courses this summer, Sally said.

    SESAME classes cover topics such as geometry, number theory, the history of mathematics, computer programming and adolescent psychology. The program receives funding from BP Amoco and the Motorola Foundations, but substantial support comes from the participating schools. Schools pay $1,000 per teacher per year to take part in the program, often as a result of Assistant Director Mason’s recruiting efforts.

    “We’re always looking for new schools and teachers who need serious staff development in mathematics education,” Sally said.