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Masters of middle school math

May 11, 2011

It’s simple math, really.

Take a small army of dedicated middle school teachers. Add to that a highly specialized master’s degree program that expands their expertise — not only in mathematics, but also in adolescent identity formation and in teaching methods that stress real-life connections for pre-teens.

Math teachers from Rockford and their NIU professors

The results are spectacular, according to Northern Illinois University researchers.

Three years ago, NIU received a U.S. Department of Education grant through the Illinois State Board of Education to launch a master’s degree program with a middle school mathematics specialization. The grant helped create a partnership between NIU and Rockford Public Schools, whereby Rockford educators could enroll tuition-free in the master’s program, one of the few of its kind in the Midwest.

Now 20 Rockford teachers will be among the program’s first graduates. They will receive their master’s degrees during the NIU Graduate School commencement, beginning at 6:30 p.m. Friday, May 13, at the Convocation Center.

The effect of the master’s degree program is exponential, considering that the 20 teachers taught mathematics to more than 1,000 students over two years. 

“The program has been a huge success,” says Mathematical Sciences professor Mary Shafer, who along with colleague Helen Khoury served as co-director of the $1 million “Excellence in the Middle” program.

“An analysis of ISAT scores for students of the teachers in our program shows significant growth in student knowledge,” Shafer says. “Generally speaking, they outscored the rest of the middle school students in the district.”

NIU researchers attribute other significant gains to the master’s program as well. For example, during the Rockford teachers’ first year in the program, their students’ test scores on an NIU-developed assessment of mathematics knowledge jumped by 11 percent. During the teachers’ second year in the program, their students’ test scores soared by 27 percent.

Bala Hosmane of NIU’s Division of Statistics, along with Shafer and Khoury, presented the research findings this spring at the U.S. Department of Education’s Mathematics and Science Partnership Conference held in Baltimore and at the American Educational Research Association’s annual conference in New Orleans. 

Teachers also are singing the program’s praises.

Jennifer Meinke, a fifth-grade teacher at Washington Academy in Rockford, says her students have “benefitted tremendously.” Through the program, she says, she became more adept at using higher-level mathematics “to enrich the content for the students who are ready, while still supporting the students who are struggling.”

Jim Sheridan, mathematics education leader at the Rockford Environmental Science Academy, says accommodating students with wide-ranging abilities is among the biggest challenges facing teachers.

“In every class, we have students of varying mathematical backgrounds and abilities. The Excellence in the Middle program has provided me with insight as to how to reach all of my students,” Sheridan says.

He also notes that teachers who completed the program are now taking leadership roles within their respective school settings.

“Drs. Khoury and Shafer have fostered a community of teacher leaders,” Sheridan says.

The teachers also welcome the specialized training for teaching math in the middle years. Initial certification programs in Illinois certify teachers for either kindergarten through ninth grade, or for the sixth through 12th grades. Yet, as any teacher knows, curricula and student needs vary widely at different grade levels.

The middle school years are particularly challenging for teachers and students alike. During adolescence, students are changing physically, emotionally, socially and cognitively. And these changes occur at different rates from one student to the next.

Rockford teachers in the Excellence in the Middle program completed coursework in such areas as advanced mathematics, teaching models and educational psychology for middle school students. Meanwhile, NIU professors visited the teachers in their classrooms, established support groups and helped nurture a learning community.

To foster real-world connections in their classrooms, the teachers also took additional courses in outside subject areas that rely heavily on mathematics, such as engineering and physics.

“I learned a lot more about why I teach mathematics,” says Carolyn Meingast, an eighth-grade mathematics teacher at Washington Academy.

The Rockford teachers also completed research-based projects within their classrooms and were encouraged to attend national conferences on mathematics education.

“I was given the opportunity to attend two mathematics conventions where I attended numerous sessions about cutting-edge mathematics research and presentation styles,” says Amanda Shuga, a fourth-grade teacher at Ellis Arts Academy. She presented her own research at a national convention last fall.

“We expect that the Excellence in the Middle program will have a big impact on Rockford schools,” NIU’s Khoury says. “The impact is first on the teachers. They now have more content knowledge of mathematics. They understand better how middle school students learn mathematics. And they are better equipped to implement age-specific lessons.

“Ultimately, we hope to inspire students and help them find mathematics more meaningful,” she adds. “We want them to understand how it’s connected to so many areas of everyday life.”

by Tom Parisi

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