Nov. 7, 2002
Vol. 22 No. 4

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    Mathachievement challenges teachers to try new approaches

    By Steve Koppes
    News Office

    Robert Fefferman, the Louis Block Professor in Mathematics and the College, instructs Chicago Public School teachers in new approaches to help students comprehend mathematics.

    Last summer, the Department of Mathematics at the University and the CNA insurance company began a program to show Chicago Public School teachers how to cure the numerical ailments of their K-8 students.

    Early intervention is the key, said Robert Fefferman, the Louis Block Professor in Mathematics and the College. “It’s in kindergarten and in first grade that the kids are molded. That’s where they develop their allergy to mathematics,” Fefferman said. “We’re trying to combat a traditional approach to mathematics, which unfortunately is still very common.”

    The traditional approach presents mathematics as a cut-and-dry proposition, that there is only one way to do everything–the way the teacher says. That approach has its drawbacks. In 1999, only 19 percent of eighth graders in Chicago Public Schools met or exceeded Illinois state standards in mathematics.

    Such performance in mathematics has dire implications for the preparation of the U.S. workforce. According to the American Management Association, 36 percent of job applicants tested by U.S. firms in 1998 lacked sufficient reading and math skills to do the jobs they sought.

    The open approach to mathematics gives students some seemingly simple problems that illustrate key mathematical themes and asks them to solve the problems in as many different ways as possible. Students are surprised to learn that their classmates come up with very different ways of solving the same problems–so are the 25 teachers who received special training in the open approach to mathematics last summer.

    “The course was great! I was taken places I never thought I could go in math,” wrote one teacher on a course evaluation. Another wrote: “The open approach is a big help to us in our classes. The open approach is fantastic.”

    Such feedback was typical, said Izaak Wirszup, Professor Emeritus in Mathematics and the College and co-director with Fefferman of Mathachievement.

    Izaak Wirszup, Professor Emeritus in Mathematics and co-director, with Robert Fefferman, of the Mathachievement program, welcomes teachers from the Chicago Public School system to the University for training sessions in the open approach to teaching and learning mathematics.

    “See the praise?” asked Wirszup, holding a sheaf of evaluations. Almost unanimously, the teachers gave an “excellent” rating to the course and its instructors, Fefferman and Jerry Becker of Southern Illinois University. “Most of them say they have never had such an institute in their life,” Wirszup said.

    The first step of the Mathachievement program occurred last summer when the teachers received training on the Chicago campus. In the second step, teachers work after school for approximately three hours a week with small groups of students who are performing poorly in mathematics.

    “We’re going to try to bring them up,” Fefferman said, both in their scores on standardized tests and in their class performance. Assisting the teachers in these sessions are Fefferman, a team of specially trained graduate students and CNA volunteers.

    The students who show improvement will receive special recognition from CNA.

    The teachers also are returning to the University for nine after-school sessions for further instruction in the open approach to mathematics and to discuss how well it works in their classes. Fefferman is impressed with their progress.

    “The teachers last summer were incredibly intellectual. They had a tremendous appetite for learning mathematics. We went much further than we expected to go with these teachers,” he said.

    The Mathachievement program brings together organizations and individuals that are highly experienced in mathematics outreach and education. CNA is a founding sponsor of Mathcounts, a national math and coaching competition program for middle school students.

    Wirszup founded the University’s Mathematics Project in 1983 with an $8.4 million grant from the Amoco Foundation. More than three million students use the project’s texts and curricular materials. In 1996, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics honored Wirszup with its Lifetime Achievement Award in Leadership, Teaching and Service.

    Since then, other programs at the University to improve and develop skills in both teaching and learning mathematics have continued. Becker and Fefferman also train Chicago middle school teachers in a summer institute on campus, which is financed by the Polk Bros. Foundation.

    Fefferman is a research mathematician whose interests include harmonic analysis, partial differential equations and probability theory. He also has worked with public school teachers for the past 15 years at all levels from elementary school through senior high school. SIU’s Becker has taught mathematics at the elementary, secondary and university levels. Recently, he directed the National Science Foundation’s teacher enhancement project for 300 K-8 mathematics teachers in the Metro-East region of East St. Louis, which includes urban areas with large minority populations as well as small rural communities.

    “He has achieved tremendous successes in areas where nobody could do anything,” Wirszup said.

    Despite their successes, much work remains to be done, Wirszup said. “In the inner cities there is an improvement, but not enough. Not nearly enough,” he said. “America can do better.”