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Tennessee program helps boost math instruction

Kenneth J. Cooper | 10/25/2011, 10:25 p.m.

Tennessee State University, a historically black school in Nashville, has devised a program to improve math instruction in the K-8 schools that could help narrow gaps in student achievement and college completion rates.

In collaboration with four other historically black colleges in Tennessee, the program updates the math knowledge and instructional techniques of experienced classroom teachers in the state’s schools serving students from lower income families. A smaller number of education majors from the five HBCUs also participate.

A preliminary evaluation indicates that the program, begun in 2007, has improved participating teachers’ knowledge and instruction in math as well as their attitude toward the subject.

One reason students get hung up on basic math in elementary school is their teachers are generalists who provide instruction in several subjects and may be afflicted themselves with math fright.

Funding for the math program has come from the state government and, more recently, a prized “Race to the Top” grant from the Obama administration.

“It’s an intense two-week summer institute. It teaches them the latest theories, strategies and techniques for math instruction,” says Peter Millet, dean of education at Tennessee State, which administers the program. “They learn content in addition to techniques. It’s like a refresher course for math skills. Maybe they had algebra years ago.”

Millet says the teachers also learn “differentiated instruction” or how to vary their techniques depending on the learning style of the students. Some understand lessons better that are visual, others if they’re hands-on, and still others need to hear an explanation. Nearly 300 teachers participated in last summer’s institute.

More than two weeks of summer professional development is involved in SITES-M, an acronym for the ungainly full name, Strengthening Instruction in Tennessee Elementary Schools: Focus on Mathematics. Other components continue throughout the school year.

Between October and April, there are six weekend workshops that cover similar material and also how to relate to students in urban areas, according to Marcia Millet, a Tennessee State professor of teaching and learning and the math specialist for SITES-M. She is married to Peter Millet. About 130 teachers and education majors participate in the workshops.

Marcia Millet and Trinetia Respress, a Tennessee State professor of educational administration and co-director of the program with Peter Millet, say other features include: two meetings a month with teachers to discuss how to implement what they have learned in their classrooms, “monthly math challenges” in problem-solving for teachers and students, and teacher observations three times a school year by education or math professors at participating black colleges.

Besides Tennessee State, those schools are: Fisk University, Knoxville College, LeMoyne-Owen College and Lane College. This year, because of an overlap in a $10 million grant from the state and another $8 million from the federal government, historically white University of Tennessee at Chattanooga has been added.

Teachers come from 17 schools in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville, Jackson and Chattanooga, according to Respress.

She says a preliminary evaluation shows improvements in knowledge, practice and attitude toward math among participating teachers. There has been no attempt to measure any gains in student achievement in the subject.

“We’re a professional development program,” Respress explains. “We measure teacher growth.”

The origins of SITES-M are rooted in academia, state government and the nonprofit sector. Marcia Millet proposed such a program in a presentation that was attended by Michael Nettles, a senior vice president of the Educational Testing Service, who liked the idea and expanded upon it, Peter Millet says.

Their proposal was carried to the state government. Two black legislators, Tommie Brown and Barbara Cooper, had similar interests and embraced the plan. So did then-Gov. Phil Bredenson.

“Several people had the same idea about the same time,” recalls Peter Millet.

Studies have shown mastering algebra makes it more likely a student will both get accepted to and succeed in college because the course builds abstract thinking skills — you learn those x’s and y’s stand for something else.

Massachusetts has also received “A Race to the Top” grant. The state is using the funds for other strategies for boosting student achievement.