Sept. 23, 1999
Vol. 19 No. 1

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    [math training] by jason smith
    A leader in teacher training, Jerry Becker, professor of mathematics education at Southern Illinois University, has joined Robert Fefferman, the Louis Block Professor and Chair of Mathematics here at the University, to train Chicago public-school teachers. Teachers were on campus to participate in the Summer Institute for the Development of Mathematics Teachers in Chicago Middle Schools. They will return this fall for more training.

    University math program boosts teaching skills

    By William Harms
    News Office

    Forty Chicago public-school teachers will return to the University this fall to continue what they began this summer––fine-tuning their skills for teaching mathematics.

    While participating in the five-week Summer Institute for the Development of Mathematics Teachers in Chicago Middle Schools, the teachers, who came from throughout the city, learned new ways to stimulate student interest in mathematics. They also learned new teaching methods to better prepare students for algebra, geometry and other high school subjects. The teachers will return for three sessions each quarter during the upcoming academic year.

    Financed with a grant from the Polk Bros. Foundation, the sessions were led by Robert Fefferman, the Louis Block Professor and Chair of Mathematics, and Jerry Becker, professor of mathematics education at Southern Illinois University.

    The program is intended to boost training for Chicago public-school teachers at a time when mathematics performance among school children is particularly poor, said Izaak Wirszup, Professor Emeritus in Mathematics and an organizer of the program.

    “The reports from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study have convinced us to concentrate on the mathematical training of those young Americans who have not been reached by ongoing reform projects,” said Wirszup, one of the nation’s leading figures in mathematics education.

    “This underserved group of young people in poor rural areas and urban centers includes the students in our own Chicago Public Schools.”

    Wirszup noted that President Bush had vowed in 1989 that the United States would be “first in the world” in mathematics performance by the year 2000. “We have failed, however, to crack the list of the top 20 nations in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study,” Wirszup said.

    Emphasizing the problems in mathematics education, the Illinois State Board of Education reported earlier this month that 52 percent of the state’s eighth-graders failed to meet the new mathematics standards of the Illinois Standards Achievement Test.

    The summer institute at the University was designed to reflect the goals of the Illinois Standards for Mathematics and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Standards 2000. The institute helped teachers expand their mastery of skills, develop mathematical insights, learn to use hands-on activities and other innovative approaches, and take advantage of technology in teaching mathematics.

    As a leader in teacher training, Becker has had a great deal of success in helping school districts in impoverished areas improve the mathematics performance of their students. He uses what is called an “open-ended approach” to teaching mathematics, one that emphasizes group involvement and encourages students and teachers to find a variety of ways to solve problems.

    “The open-ended approach works; the teachers relate to it, learn it and appreciate it––and they can use it in their classrooms,” Becker said. The approach involves identifying the mathematical topics and concepts to be taught, reviewing them and then developing detailed lesson plans that draw on middle school students’ own natural mathematical thinking abilities, he explained.

    “We also regard assessment as open; that is, we do not advocate traditional assessment, such as quizzes and tests, but use the productions of students, their work, as the source of information on which to base assessment,” said Becker.

    Participating schools and teachers were selected by two officials of the Chicago Public Schools Administration, Telkia Rutherford and Clifton Burgess, in cooperation with Paul Vallas, chief executive officer of Chicago Public Schools. Sandra Guthman, president and chief executive officer of the Polk Bros. Foundation, visited one of the summer sessions of the program.

    “We would also like to thank President Sonnenschein, who has been an enthusiastic supporter of our work,” Wirszup said.

    Fefferman, Wirszup and Robert Zimmer, the Max Mason Distinguished Service Professor in Mathematics and Senior Associate Provost at the University, have begun the second year of a three-year project to provide additional training in mathematics for Chicago.