May 10, 2007
Vol. 26 No. 16

current issue
archive / search
Chronicle RSS Feed

    Gaining skills, gaining confidence: University program, supported by Polk Bros. Foundation, multiplies ability to teach, learn math

    By William Harms
    News Office

    Mathematicians from around the country will learn about the success of a University program that boosts the mathematics teaching skills of Chicago Public Schools teachers at a conference later this month organized by the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute.

    Robert Fefferman, Dean of the Physical Sciences, will discuss the program, The University of Chicago Polk Bros. Foundation Program for the Improvement of CPS Mathematics Teaching, in a keynote address at the conference, titled “Critical Issues in Education: Teaching Teachers Mathematics,” set for the end of May in Berkeley, Calif. The Mathematical Sciences Research Institute is one of the nation’s leading research centers for mathematics and draws mathematicians from around the country for extended periods of study.

    Fefferman, the Max Mason Distinguished Service Professor in Mathematics and the College, will describe how the project—designed for Chicago Public Schools teachers—began with a Polk Bros. Foundation grant in 1999, when he and Izaak Wirszup, Professor Emeritus in Mathematics and the College, co-founded and co-directed the program.

    Since then, the project has been offered at the University every year in five-week sessions during the summer and monthly meetings during the school year. The program, which involves more than 100 elementary, middle school and high school teachers each year, provides the teachers with new ways to stimulate student interest in mathematics.

    Fefferman and Jerry Becker, professor of mathematics education at Southern Illinois University, lead the summer sessions.

    Becker shows teachers how to use an open-ended approach to teaching, in which teachers encourage students to find a variety of ways to solve the same problem. He also explains ways in which mathematics learning and instruction are carried on differently in other countries.

    Fefferman teaches during the summer session and provides evening programs each month during the school year for teachers, introducing them to important mathematical concepts. “I want them to go though the process of thinking deeply about mathematics,” Fefferman said. “We cover such topics as algebra, geometry, calculus and probability.”

    A very important component of the program includes several selected graduate and undergraduate students of the Department of Mathematics who regularly visit the school of participating teachers to help implement the program in the classrooms.

    Sandra Guthman, President of the Polk Bros. Foundation, said, “The purpose of the program is to instill confidence in teachers by freeing them from the fear that they have to know every answer. They learn that there can be multiple ways to solve any problem.

    “What the CPS teachers create in the classroom is a very different environment for students. Their classes are not about rote learning, but about problem-solving,” she said.

    Alumnus Richard Schaar (Ph.D.,’74), retired Senior Vice President of Texas Instruments, who continues to serve as Math and Science Education Policy Advisor for the company, has visited the program and praises its efforts.

    “The night I visited was a cold and snowy night, but the hall was filled with teachers, some of whom brought their children because they could not find sitters,” Schaar said. “They were involved and listening intently to Dean Fefferman. The real key to improving mathematics education is reaching teachers, and I could tell Fefferman was expanding their knowledge about mathematics as well as inspiring them on new ways to teach the subject.”

    Marie Schilling, a retired fourth-grade teacher at William H. Ray Elementary School in Hyde Park, said, “This program made me see some of the connectedness of math and made me appreciate its beauty. When I was learning math originally, I didn’t like it very much and I was not very good at it,” said Schilling, who now serves as a program assistant with the project.

    After taking the course, Schilling said she felt more confident as a teacher and began using problems that Becker had suggested. The problems, which are more like puzzles than conventional story problems, prompted her students to come up with multiple solutions, each tailored to their individual understanding of how to go about solving a mathematics problem.

    “They talked with each other about their problem-solving and, accordingly, increased their understanding of mathematics,” she said. “It was great to see them that excited about mathematics,” said Schilling, who prepares elaborate printed records of each session.

    Among the many teachers who found the program rewarding is Marvin Neely, Assistant Principal at Lawndale Academy on the city’s West Side. He and four other teachers took the course and formed a mathematics committee in 2003 to revamp Lawndale’s curriculum. Lawndale has dramatically changed their mathematics program so that they now have a mathematics specialist and have had other teachers take the course.

    “Because of our participation in the program, fear of teaching math subsided and the results were that in the past five years our school went from having below 20 percent of our students at or above grade level on the ISAT mathematics test, to over 50 percent. I credit the University of Chicago’s program with this dramatic turnaround for our troubled inner-city school,” Neely said. “Many of our teachers helped a great number of students reach heights they would have been denied.”

    The University of Chicago Polk Bros. Foundation Program for the Improvement of CPS Mathematics Teaching is a continuation of an earlier University mathematics program supported by the Gabriella and Paul Rosenbaum Foundation. Among the members of the Chicago faculty who instructed teachers in the earlier program is President Zimmer, who was the Max Mason Distinguished Service Professor in Mathematics and Senior Associate Provost at the time.