All students can learn advanced math — with the right teacher

April 05, 2010|By Kurt L. Schmoke

For decades I have watched and worked with Baltimore-area schools. I've seen reform after reform. I've seen testing mandates and spending escalations.

There have been some improvements, especially in the past few years. The city's graduation rate is up, the drop-out rate has declined, and many educators indicate that the city's high school students are better off than they were a decade ago. But all agree that these signs of progress are not enough.

Some of these reforms have begun to prepare our students to compete in the global economy, where our competitors in Europe and Asia have a solid commitment to teach higher mathematics and sciences. But as University of Maryland, Baltimore County President Freeman Hrabowski, himself a research mathematician, has written, the gap between white and minority students persists and policymakers must find new ways to improve the plight of low-performing students.

This is not just a problem for Baltimore, of course. Across the country, the gap in minority student performance - especially in math and science - is wide, and the percentage of minority students is growing. In 2008, about 40 percent of 17-year-olds were minorities, and it's going up.

That means the quality of America's future work force - and the ability of the United States to compete globally - depends on educating all students. We must rapidly close the gap by motivating all students to learn advanced mathematical concepts and sciences, as well as reading and writing.

Among U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan's recommendations for reforming education is making sure that quality teachers are distributed fairly among suburban and urban systems.

Achieving these goals may sound like a gargantuan task. But it can be done. Across the country, successful programs point to this possibility.

For example, in the Baltimore County Public Schools, a program known as Project SEED, a nonprofit organization, achieves both objectives - attracting highly trained mathematicians to schools with significant minority populations, where they motivate elementary students to learn high-level mathematical concepts.

Project SEED is a successful national program that for more than 40 years has brought trained mathematicians to teach higher-level mathematics to primarily urban elementary students. Throughout its history, repeated independent evaluations have shown that Project SEED instruction has a powerful positive effect on student achievement at all levels.

The results of the longitudinal studies of Project SEED have shown that the positive effects of the program on students at the elementary level carried well into high school and that these students enrolled in higher-level mathematics in larger numbers than their non-SEED counterparts.

Project SEED's methods are effective with students from all socioeconomic backgrounds and across all achievement levels.

Project SEED's members believe all students can learn. It begins with the notion that a vicious cycle in our education system must be broken. Universities fail our elementary-school teachers by requiring just one low-level math course to qualify for a teaching certificate. No matter how dedicated they are, these teachers are often unprepared for teaching math. Even at the high school level, large numbers of teachers assigned to teach mathematics are not mathematically proficient.

This doesn't have to be. Despite complaints that math majors won't teach in public schools, Project SEED has proven that it can recruit people with high levels of math training to teach even fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders.

Project SEED turns a knowledgeable mathematician into an effective teacher who uses a high-energy teaching strategy that involves every child, every day.

Why would a math major want to do this instead of taking a higher-paying job? Because of success in teaching mathematics and the students' joy when they realize they can learn it become a natural draw.

Project SEED has shown it can go into any classroom in the country - making no excuses for failing schools or socio-economic conditions - and within a short time change otherwise apathetic students into enthusiastic learners of advanced mathematics. It gives these students the confidence that they can learn anything.

Studies over many years have shown that students who participated in Project SEED have a higher graduation rate, take higher-level high school math courses and participate in college majors that require more science and mathematics.

As a collaboration between a foundation and a school system to improve education and close the gap, Baltimore County Public Schools Superintendent Joe Hairston and his leadership team and the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation should be commended for supporting Project SEED.

Other school systems and philanthropic groups should learn from this model.

Kurt L. Schmoke is the former mayor of Baltimore and dean of the Howard Law School. His e-mail is

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