Recruitment & Retention

Fellowship Program Works to Beef Up Math Teaching

February 08, 2011 7 min read
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When Katherine Collins, a math major at Pacific Lutheran University in her home state of Washington, began exploring options for life after college, she stumbled on a website that ultimately led her clear across the country to a public school here in the nation’s capital.

She secured a spot in the competitive Math for America fellowship program, part of a small but growing initiative launched in 2004 that aims to improve secondary mathematics education by recruiting, training, and retaining outstanding math teachers. A core tenet is finding people who “know and love math,” the nonprofit organization says on its website.

“I kind of toyed with the idea of going to graduate school [in mathematics], being a professor, or working in industry,” Ms. Collins, 24, recalled. “But I thought that the mission of bringing math people into the [K-12] education field was really spot-on.”

The fellowship provides intensive preparation and support for new teachers. Successful applicants to the five-year program earn a master’s degree at no cost and continue to get mentoring, regular professional development, and other support. They also get generous annual stipends that over five years can total up to $100,000.

First launched in New York City, Math for America has gradually expanded to six more sites, including San Diego, Los Angeles, Berkeley, Calif., Utah, Boston, and the District of Columbia. It started with a focus on recruiting new teachers, but has added two related programs: a Master Teacher Fellowship for top-notch, veteran secondary math teachers and the Early Career Fellowship, which offers support and growth opportunities to newer teachers.

Only the New York City site offers all three programs.

In addition, Math for America has begun adding science teachers at some locations.

The initiative’s reach so far is limited, with about 420 current participants.

“At heart, we view this as a pilot program,” said John H. Ewing, the president of the New York City-based nonprofit and a former math professor. “Even if we grow to a thousand teachers, that’s a drop in the bucket.”

The hope, he explains, is that the effort could serve as a model for a major national initiative, perhaps a partnership between the federal government and states.

Even now, most local sites receive some federal aid through the National Science Foundation to complement private funds.

‘Noble Profession’

The growth of Math for America comes as national concern has mounted about the relatively lackluster math achievement of U.S. students. In his recent State of the Union address, President Barack Obama said “the quality of our math and science education lags behind many other nations.”

He also called for the recruitment over the next decade of 100,000 new teachers in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.

Math for America was founded by a group of business leaders, mathematicians, and educators, led by James H. Simons, a philanthropist, former hedge-fund manager, and an accomplished mathematician.

The organization’s name echoes that of the far larger Teach For America, but Math for America organizers say the two differ in a lot of ways, such as the generous stipends and the requirement that new math teachers complete a yearlong master’s program—in secondary math education.

Math for America fellows also make a longer-term commitment to teach at least four years in a public school in the program location. If they drop out early, fellows must repay at least a portion of the financial support they receive.

“We are asking for an extended commitment because we believe that if somebody can last in the classroom for more than two, three, or even four years, there is a chance that this can be a very long career,” said Bianca Abrams, the executive director of Math for America D.C. “We’re trying to frame this as ... a noble profession.”

Ms. Abrams said the consequences for dropping out early have helped weed out applicants who may not be serious.

Each site is autonomous, but “all operate on the same general principles that underlie Math for America,” said Mr. Ewing, who led the American Mathematical Society for 13 years before joining Math for America in 2009. “They have their own boards, and each site is a little different from the others, which I view as a strength. ... We have seven different experiments.”

Ongoing Changes

The national organization provides startup funding as well as matching grants to help each site get started and operate, he said. It has a variety of private donors; the largest is the Simons Foundation, which James Simons co-founded. It provides $10 million to $20 million a year, Mr. Ewing estimated.

The District of Columbia program involves a partnership with the Carnegie Institution of Science and American University, where students attend graduate school. The first cohort of six fellows, including Ms. Collins from Pacific Lutheran University, began in June 2009. (One fellow dropped out early on.)

A second cohort of nine fellows began last year. By contrast, the largest site, in New York City, has 40 new-teacher fellows for the cohort that began last June.

Details of the program vary somewhat by locale. In the District of Columbia, each fellow gets a living stipend of $22,000 during the 14-month graduate program. Over the next four years when they teach full-time, the stipend is $12,500 per year on top of their regular salary.

Ms. Collins, who now teaches 6th grade math at the Parkside middle school campus of Cesar Chavez Public Charter School, said the money is a powerful incentive for math specialists who might otherwise dismiss a career in teaching.

“If you go into finance, you get paid a lot more for your math degree,” she said. “If you go into engineering, you’ll get paid a lot more. ... So education sort of ends up being the last option.”

The program provides other support, such as pairing up teachers with mentors and providing monthly professional development.

Several of the Washington fellows, including Ms. Collins, said that while their experience overall with Math for America has been positive, there are elements they felt could have been stronger.

“It’s obviously been the first year, so there were definitely kinks,” said fellow Max J. Mikulec, who now teaches algebra and geometry at a magnet school.

One common concern was that the coursework in the master’s program needs some changes to ensure more relevancy to the classroom. For example, Ms. Collins said she wished the American University program had devoted more time to strategies for classroom management. Mr. Mikulec said some of the math coursework was “a little too abstract” and seemed more appropriate for math graduate students than teachers.

Local and national leaders at Math for America say they’re well aware of such concerns, and emphasize that the whole enterprise is a work in progress, subject to continual improvement.

In any case, said Mr. Mikulec, any preparation strategy only goes so far.

“No matter how much training I could have received before this, it’s so tough to prepare you for that first day, week, and month,” he said. “Year one is very difficult.”

Ms. Collins said she’s come to appreciate the ongoing support.

“I’ve got Math for America behind me, sort of helping me to grow professionally,” she said.

‘It Costs Money’

One challenge for Math for America is the expense of its programs. But both the organization’s leaders and some outside observers say that attracting and keeping outstanding teachers is worth the price.

Eric S. Lander, the co-chairman of a White House advisory panel on science and technology, said the program shows great promise.

“It costs money to run high-quality programs,” said Mr. Lander, the founding director of the Broad Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University. “But it’s an investment that will pay off generously in the preparation of young Americans in science and mathematics.”

Francis M. “Skip” Fennell, an education professor at McDaniel College in Westminster, Md., and a past president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, said he sees much to like in Math for America, such as its targeting of urban centers, its focus on teachers’ strong content knowledge, and its creation of a “community” of educators.

“I think these guys are really going to try to get it right,” he said.

Mr. Ewing said he hopes to see the existing sites grow, adding that the national office is eyeing a few new locations, including with a look toward rural areas.

Stepping back, he said one of the larger goals is nothing less than to elevate the status of the teaching profession. That is where the additional programs for experienced teachers especially come into play, he said, as they recognize and compensate excellence in teaching.

“We want to have the highest quality, the best teachers we can find in the classroom,” he said. “So part of what we do is recruit good people into teaching. ... But if you don’t make the profession of teaching better, more attractive, then you’re not going to succeed in either attracting them or keeping them there.”

Coverage of mathematics, science, and technology education is supported by a grant from the GE Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the February 09, 2011 edition of Education Week as Fellowship Program Strives to Shore Up Mathematics Teaching

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