Math and Science Ventures to Be Scaled Up

By Sean Cavanagh — October 12, 2007 6 min read
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A pair of Texas mathematics and science education programs that have received widespread acclaim are now being promoted on a national scale, with the help of a new nonprofit organization and a major corporate contribution.

The National Math and Science Initiative, a new nonprofit based in Dallas, has begun giving out grants to states to replicate the two programs, with plans to distribute a total of $125 million in the near term.

All that initial financing—an amount larger than the budget for many federal education programs—is being provided by ExxonMobil Corp., the worldwide oil and gas company.

The goal is to spawn efforts modeled on U Teach, a program to train mathematics and science teachers at the University of Texas at Austin, and on Advanced Placement Strategies Inc., a program to increase student participation in college-preparatory courses through cash incentives and teacher training. Seven states have been awarded grants so far to create AP Strategies programs, and more grants to launch teacher training are expected to be announced this fall.

The long-term goal of the initiative, which was launched earlier this year, is to establish 20 AP programs at schools and 50 U Teach-style programs on university campuses around the country.

A key player in the initiative is a former Bush administration education official, Thomas W. Luce III, who serves as its chief executive officer. The organization’s staff also includes John Winn, the former state education commissioner of Florida, and Sarah Dillard, who served as an adviser to Mr. Luce at the U.S. Department of Education.

The organization wants to channel private-sector money toward programs that have a record of success, Mr. Luce said. It intends to create programs that have the financial and political backing in states to last, he added, in contrast to the many pilot projects that begin with a flourish and then wither away.

To that end, grant recipients will be expected to seek private-sector and state funds when the initial financing runs out—a feasible goal, Mr. Luce believes, once businesses and policymakers gain confidence in the programs in their communities.

“The goal here is to have a national impact,” Mr. Luce said. “We want to sustain it. … You can’t impact this problem on a large enough scale with pilot projects.”

Seeking Partners

A state’s governor must sign off on the venture before any application will be considered.

Thus far, the initiative has drawn strong interest. Twenty-eight nonprofits have applied for AP grants, and 52 universities have sought funding to start teacher-training programs.

Lone Star Origins

The National Math and Science Initiative is awarding $125 million in grants to states to set up programs modeled on two Texas ventures—one centered at the high school level, the other on a college campus.

Advanced Placement Strategies Inc.
Founded in 2000, the Dallas-based nonprofit provides teacher training, curricular support, and cash bonuses to teachers and students to participate in AP classes and tests, primarily in disadvantaged schools. Participation in AP mathematics, science, and English courses in 10 Dallas-area schools in the program rose from 2,500 students in 2000 to 4,000 in 2006; the number of passing scores, including those of minority students, also grew.

U Teach
Established in 1997 at the University of Texas at Austin, the program seeks to increase the number of math and science majors who choose teaching careers, and keep them in the profession. The program has doubled the number of math majors and increased by five to six times the number of science majors becoming certified to teach, UT officials say. Seventy-five percent of those who graduated in 2001 or earlier are still teaching.

SOURCES: AP Strategies Inc.; University of Texas at Austin

Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Virginia, and Washington have received grants to establish AP programs. Each will be awarded $13.2 million over six years. Another round of grant awards to establish university teacher-training programs is likely to be announced this month, Mr. Luce said.

Both the AP Strategies program and U Teach have won praise from elected officials and business leaders in recent years. They have touted those programs as innovative, unorthodox approaches to improving teaching and learning in math and science.

AP Strategies, based in Dallas, offers cash incentives, typically from $100 to $500, to students who receive passing scores on Advanced Placement exams and to teachers who help them. A passing score on AP tests, which are sponsored by the New York City-based College Board, is a 3 on a 5-point scale. The program targets schools, often in disadvantaged areas, with low AP enrollment. (“Program Doles Out Cash To Students Who Pass AP Exams,” July 9, 2003.)

AP Strategies also trains teachers in how to teach such courses more effectively and helps teachers of earlier grades prepare students for those classes. Sixty Texas school districts take part in the program, which has trained about 8,000 teachers, said Brenda Bradford, the president of AP Strategies.

She predicted that the chief challenge for grant recipients would be selecting the right schools to participate. AP Strategies officials visit schools and work with those where teachers and administrators have shown a strong interest in AP but have struggled to boost participation.

“A lot of the [criteria] are things you can’t quantify, but you know it when you go to the school,” Ms. Bradford said.

U Teach, established in 1997, is run jointly by the University of Texas’ colleges of natural sciences and of education, in what observers say is a successful partnership between an academic department and a teacher education program.

Unlike some teacher-training programs, U Teach offers education courses that place a heavy emphasis on math and science content, as well as on classroom-teaching strategies that are tailored to those subjects.

The year before it was established, only four science and 19 math majors at the university’s Austin campus were pursuing teacher certification, out of 8,300 total majors in those subjects. Today, U Teach enrolls about 450 students. While the teaching profession has long been plagued by high turnover rates in math, science, and certain other subjects, 75 percent of U Teach students who graduated in 2001 or earlier have stayed in the field, university officials say.

Sustained Effort?

Michael Marder, a co-director of U Teach and a physics professor at the university, is optimistic that the grant program can contribute to the nation’s teaching workforce because of its ability to reach so many universities.

He said he hoped U Teach has shown other institutions one approach to fostering “a strong, supportive environment for teachers, so that they’ll stay in the classroom.”

In addition to the award from ExxonMobil, the National Math and Science Initiative has received contributions from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation. The initiative will continue to seek private-sector and philanthropic support to keep the grant money flowing, Mr. Luce said.

David H. King, the president of Alexander Haas Martin & Partners, an Atlanta-based company that raises money for schools, colleges, and other organizations around the country, said what makes the Texas initiative unusual is that the endowment came from a publicly traded company, rather than a foundation. Philanthropies traditionally take the lead in supporting such school undertakings, said Mr. King, who is also the treasurer of the Giving Institute, an association of fundraising consultants.

“For most corporations, the problem with K-12 education is they don’t really know how to fix it,” Mr. King said. “And if you don’t know how to fix it, it’s hard to know how to invest your money.”

A native of Texas, Mr. Luce said he was long an admirer of U Teach and AP Strategies, and was a vocal supporter of the latter program within the Bush administration, while serving as the assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development in the Education Department.

Mr. Luce moved to Dallas after resigning from his federal post last year. He had previously founded a nonprofit education organization in Texas, Just for the Kids, which is now a part of the National Center for Educational Accountability. When ExxonMobil officials told him they were interested in putting resources into effective math and science programs, Mr. Luce said AP Strategies and U Teach programs were logical choices.

ExxonMobil is the world’s largest publicly traded oil and gas company, according to pfc Energy, a global-energy advisory company based in Washington. The company reported a net income of $40 billion in 2006. It has come under criticism in recent years for what detractors see as a failure to address concerns about carbon-dioxide emissions and global warming.

Gerald W. McElvy, the president of the company’s foundation, said the $125 million gift—its largest contribution ever to education—reflects a long-standing attempt to improve K-12 math and science, which it has supported through teacher-training academies and other efforts. ExxonMobil was particularly impressed with AP Strategies’ and U Teach’s commitment to tracking their performance over time, he said.

This was an opportunity “to scale up proven programs to the national level,” Mr. McElvy said. “We believe substantial action needs to be taken,” he said. “These programs are not cheap.”

Coverage of mathematics, science, and technology education is supported by a grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation at
A version of this article appeared in the October 17, 2007 edition of Education Week


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