Thank you for honoring me with the opportunity to speak with you today.
I have made a career out of teaching math to those who believe they can’t do math. I have worked at low-income public schools, as well as a tuition-free private school for students who were previously unsuccessful in school. I have taught math through creating art, building a health clinic, climbing rocks, studying genetics, and investigating democracy. I have not only taught students, but I have also trained new teachers in how to teach math effectively, creatively and experientially.
Effective math education empowers students and teachers with knowledge, critical thinking skills, creativity, and passion for the complex problems encountered in real life. I’ve found that what works for struggling students is using math as a lens for understanding things that interest them. For example, I taught a class called Rockin’ Road that centered around rock climbing. Through this ten-week field course, students learned math, geology, physics, environmental science, and literature as we traveled through Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming. Another critical piece to what works for students learning math is to give them complex, open-ended problems and the support to solve them. In my classroom, I never give answers. The students propose solutions and critique each other until they come to consensus in the same way that real mathematician and scientists operate. In the class which I videotaped for this award, Is Democracy Fair?, the students used math to choose which government systems are most representative of the people.
The federal government’s primary role in improving math education should be to provide structures that support math teachers in regulating and developing their own field, education. After the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics wrote their National Math Standards in 1990, NSF funded the development of curricula in line with those standards. The Interactive Mathematics Program (IMP) was one such curriculum in which I was trained and that I piloted in my classroom. It is an exceptional curriculum for developing problem-solving skills and imparting content knowledge, and has been a key resource in the various innovative courses I have taught. It gave me the tools to develop curriculum to fit into courses such as Building a Boat in which students designed and constructed a wooded canoe, learning scale, surface area and volume, and dimensional analysis. IMP’s success is attributable to two factors: first, math teachers themselves developed it; and second, IMP incorporates teacher-designed professional development to train math instructors in the curriculum. Teachers have described the IMP training and curriculum as the source of their classroom’s transformation from a teacher-centered lecture to a student-centered problem-solving environment. I want to thank the NSF for this program and strongly encourage the continuance of such initiatives.
Despite such successful federal initiatives as IMP, there are still many limits to student and teacher achievement in math. Students are limited by their own fears and insecurities about math; by their unmet emotional and physical needs; and by classroom social environments that are hostile to learning and achieving in school. Teachers are limited by having to deliver courses loaded with so much content that not enough time remains for conceptual and thinking skills, as well as by having to participate in professional development that is often inapplicable to their daily classroom experience. Both teachers and students may try to create a learning environment in facilities that are so rundown and uncomfortable that they may be unsafe. In addition, teachers struggle to be voices speaking a different message in a culture that regards science and math as a collection of discrete facts rather than a method of investigating and representing the world.
Another limit to student and teacher achievement is recent legislation and regulations which place too much emphasis on testing and not enough on learning. There certainly needs to be accountability for federal funds spent on education. Overall however, the No Child Left Behind Act is hindering education more than it is helping it. I personally have had to curtail the type of teaching that earned me recognition as a finalist for the Presidential Award. When I was in an independent school free from federal legislation, my courses were innovative and my students soared. Now, I am constrained by testing and have had to spend the last four weeks in my classroom teaching a test preparation curriculum designed by the Princeton Review. They were paid handsomely by my school district, an urban school district without enough money for textbooks. We nonetheless feel forced to allocated resources to test prep rather than instruction because the tests are high stakes for the school district retaining control over innovative programs in which we believe. There are far better ways to provide exceptional education for all and to create a professional environment in which teachers are held to high expectations for classroom instruction and development of practice.
So what can the federal government do? Attract and retain good math teachers and then support us in doing our jobs. Contrary to popular belief, salary is not the primary factor keeping good math teachers away from schools. Rather, it is the lack of professional stimulation. I personally have spent so much time participating in “professional development” workshops where outsiders to my field come to tell me what to do. I am happy to learn from others, but I often find that these “experts” are unable to give me information that I can use in my classroom. A far more effective use of my time would be to work with my colleagues to develop our practice in such a way as to respond to the real needs of our students.
My recommendation of the single most important step the federal government should take to improve math and science education is to sponsor small teacher groups working together to improve practice. In other words, support structures in which teachers work together to develop and refine their curriculum and instruction. This action would accomplish the goal of making the profession more fulfilling to teachers, as well as providing the most effective forum for critique and evolution of practice to benefit students. In addition, such programs would hold teachers accountable for doing high quality work, since teachers would consistently be observed and evaluated by their own colleagues. Supporting such programs would address the issues I previously mentioned as limiting students and teachers, because teachers would choose to address the issues most impacting their own classrooms. Every classroom across the country has different needs and issues to address.
One such model initiative is presently being sponsored by the Colorado Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and is based on research from the Third International Math and Science Study (the TIMS Study). In this curriculum development model, which is the established norm in Japan, teachers work in small groups to develop curriculum and practice. Small groups of teachers convene to define a particular issue or problem they share in instruction (for example, ensuring that students understand the applications of logarithms). Then they work together to design lessons addressing that issue. Finally, all the teachers in the group pilot the new unit in their own classrooms, periodically observing each other’s practice to critique the unit and refine it.
This “teachers as researchers” model allows teachers to address the issues that are truly present in their classrooms and curricula. It also keeps teachers fresh and creative, giving them regular opportunity to practice the thinking and problem-solving skills necessary for good math and good teaching. Moreover this model incorporates the type of pre-service and in-service training I have found to be most helpful as a teacher: getting plenty of classroom time with plenty of observation and feedback. This also holds teachers accountable to their peers for delivering quality learning in their classrooms. This authentic accountability by teachers for teachers will allow teachers and schools to improve teaching and learning, not just how they talk about teaching and learning. Finally, this model complements the findings of a TIMSS follow-up study by James Hiebert that showed that instructional technique, especially the kinds of questions teachers ask students, is more important than the actual curricula taught.
In order for math education to work for all students in our county, a major shift across the entire profession is necessary. Such cultural change requires evaluation and improvement at the level of daily practice. To this end, the federal government should support structures that encourage evolution of practice. Thank you again for giving me this opportunity to speak with you and for affirming the invaluable perspective of classroom teachers in this discussion. I look forward to the future growth that will come from our continued collaboration.
Jason Cushner’s Bio:
Jason’s teaching career was not predictable. He did not excel in high school. In college, he found a love for math and majored in it. When he graduated in 1992, there were few jobs available, so he ended up tutoring math, traveling through Europe, and teaching English in Turkey, where he discovered his love of teaching. On his return to the States, he enrolled in Colorado College’s Teaching Certification and Master’s Program and taught in public schools in Colorado Springs. He then got a position at Eagle Rock School and Professional Development Center in Estes Park, Colorado. Eagle Rock is a tuition-free, residential school for students who have been previously unsuccessful in school. During his six years at Eagle Rock, Jason taught many innovative courses, including Building a Boat, Physics and Calculus, and Rockin’ Road, a summer field-course in which students traveled throughout Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming studying math, geology, physics, environmental science, and literature around the theme of rock climbing. He was also the dorm parent for fourteen teenagers in one of the student houses. This past year, Jason moved to Providence, Rhode Island and has been teaching math at Feinstein High School, one of Providence’s small public high schools.
Throughout his teaching career, Jason has focused on how to make math education work for all students. To this end, he has published numerous articles, including an article for the Colorado Council of Teachers of Mathematics (CCTM) newsletter on how to use portfolios to assess student learning, and an article for Mathematics Teacher on how to design and implement a service-based math curriculum. Other publications include curriculum books for Rockin’ Road and Community Problem Solving. He has presented at several conferences around the country, including CCTM’s Annual Conference, the National Service Learning Conference, and the Association of Experiential Education International Conference. He has also served as a representative on the CCTM board and was honored as Outstanding Math Teacher in Colorado in 2001. He enjoys trail running and rock climbing, and is engaged to be married this summer to Sarah Bertucci, a science teacher whom he met when they taught Physics and Calculus together.
Reprinted with permission. Copyright 2003. House Committee On Science, 2320 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, DC 20515