Solving X for Access: The Value of Math Education

By Julia Halprin Jackson

Lurie College of Education Dean Heather Lattimer. Photo: Karl Nielsen.

Lurie College of Education Dean Heather Lattimer’s new formula for preparing math teachers is transforming the careers of educators and increasing equity in classrooms.

Robyn Riedstra, a math teacher at William Sheppard Middle School. Photo: Jim Gensheimer.

Robyn Riedstra remembers the day she gave up learning math. Stumped by fractions in third grade, she asked her mother for help. Her mother asked repeatedly if she’d understood the concept in class and, if so, what was different at home. Riedstra interpreted the response to mean that she wasn’t smart. She stopped doing her homework—math, English, science, everything—altogether. She was eight years old.

“I always wanted to know the ‘why’ behind math,” says Riedstra, ’19 MA Elementary Education, Multiple Subject Teaching Credential. “This frustrated teachers who didn’t know the answers themselves. And rather than say, ‘I don’t know how to explain it to you,’ they would shut me down.”

Years later, Riedstra’s high school guidance counselor told her mother, “Robyn hasn’t yet passed algebra. You should give up on her now.” Whether it was the way she was taught math, the messages she’d internalized about her own ability, or the insecurity communicated by her teachers, Riedstra’s ambivalence toward math reflects a national trend. Heather Lattimer, dean of San Jose State’s Connie L. Lurie College of Education, aims to change the approach toward teaching math. By preparing K-12 teachers to teach math and science, San Jose State is helping educators inspire students to investigate math, better equipping them to graduate high school, attend college and pursue careers in any field—medicine, law, science, even the arts. This initiative kicked off in summer 2019 with the launch of a new Math Teacher Institute for credential candidates and practicing teachers. The goal in 2020 is to expand the program to include science and computer science—”STEM+C.”

“We want to increase the expertise of our future educators in math, science and computer science,” says Lattimer. “When teachers are not confident teaching math and science, the message that can be communicated to children is that these subjects are hard or scary. We need to ensure that our kids have access to high-quality math and science education. Math is often a gatekeeper for future educational and professional opportunities.”

E is for Equity

Lattimer says access to effective math education is about equity. In early 2019, the CSU system announced it was considering increasing its admission requirements for incoming freshmen from three years of high school math to four. While this fourth year is a measurement of “computational skills,” meaning that students could substitute economics, statistics or computer science, this could affect who gets in to San Jose State. The CSU trustees are due to vote on this requirement in January 2020.

To complete four years of high school math, students would have to complete algebra by the end of ninth grade—if not sooner. According to “A Leak in the STEM Pipeline: Taking Algebra Early,” a 2018 U.S. Department of Education report, data collected during the 2015-2016 school year demonstrates the discrepancy in district resources, even within Silicon Valley. All of the middle schools in Cupertino offered algebra in eighth grade, though only 41 percent of students took the course, while 78 percent of San Jose middle schools offered the course, of which 27 percent enrolled. None of the middle schools in Morgan Hill offered algebra in eighth grade. How can these students compete?

“The proposed fourth year computation requirement adds urgency to the conversation around ensuring that we are preparing well-qualified math teachers,” says Lattimer. “We need to ensure that kids, regardless of zip code or high school, have access to high-quality math, science and computer science education. We don’t want them to be kept out of any field or lose access to post-secondary education. If you have not passed algebra by the end of ninth grade, your post-secondary options are often very limited.”

Lattimer refers to “The Algebra Imperative: Assessing Algebra in a National and International Context,” a 2013 Brown Center on Education Policy at Brookings Institute report by Tom Loveless that reinforces “algebra’s gatekeeper status as a body of mathematics.” Citing evidence from the National Assessment of Educational Progress collected by the National Center for Education Statistics, the research suggests that “there is a growing gap between the titles of courses and what students actually learn in them.” This can mean that students arrive at college with high grade point averages, expecting to perform well, then fail the math entrance exams. According to data collected in 2013 by Educational Testing Service, about 30 percent of freshmen entering the California State University system in 2012 failed the Entry Level Math test. The students had to enroll in remedial math classes, which affected their timeline to graduation.

Imagine the impact these students could have with better math preparation in middle and high school, says Nancy Ureña Reid, ’05 Single Subject Teaching Credential, an AP computer science teacher in San Jose Unified School District. Reid hopes to close the digital divide for women, Latinos and African-Americans, groups that are underrepresented in the technology workforce. Armed with a math credential and six years of experience as an engineer, Reid partnered with Microsoft’s Technology Education and Literacy in Schools (TEALS) program to access curriculum and mentorship opportunities.

“For my first five years teaching computer science A, there was only one person teaching it at my school—me,” says Reid. “Most people in computer science are in tech, making two, three, four times the amount that teachers get paid. Students need to be ambassadors of computer science and they need math skills to get there.”

The Productive Struggle

“With my students, I’m transparent about the fact that I’m learning too.” — Robyn Riedstra, ’19 MA Elementary Education

The Lurie College of Education offered the eight-week Math Teacher Institute free of charge and offered teachers optional paid teaching internships through Math Elevate, a summer enrichment program run by the Silicon Valley Education Foundation. The program included preparation for the California Subject Examination for Teachers (CSET), allowing these future educators the opportunity to earn “foundational-level” certification and qualify to teach middle school math.

Robyn Riedstra could not wait to apply. Despite her learning struggles, she had always wanted to be a teacher. She volunteered in her children’s parent-participation classrooms for 10 years before becoming a substitute teacher. However, math kept getting in her way. How she could make an impact if she didn’t feel capable of understanding math herself? Everything changed after she completed the summer course.

“I’m absolutely a better teacher because of the Math Teacher Institute,” says Riedstra. “The skills it reinforced really helped me put together what I believe about teaching—who I am as a teacher. There isn’t a ‘wrong way’ in math. There are just different ways to think.”

Many of Riedstra’s colleagues had similar experiences, says Isabel Vallejo, the college’s director of assessment and accreditation. Vallejo evaluated the program.

“At the beginning of the summer, most of the candidates said they were afraid of teaching math,” says Vallejo. “By the end of the summer, a few of those teachers had job offers, and those who were hesitant to teach math were ready to give it a chance. Because STEM education is an equity issue, the more benefit there is for teachers, the more opportunities students have.”

The challenges to teaching math are about content, which includes scaffolded approaches to critical thinking, analytical reasoning and logic, and developing a student’s self-confidence when solving problems. Riedstra explains this as the ability to power through “the productive struggle,” a concept she learned while researching the Standards of Mathematical Practice for her math content course at the summer institute. The math standards are part of the California Common Core standards, which offer guidelines for educators to adapt at all age levels. The first standard: “Make sense of problems and persevere through them.”

“When I learn something new, it feels like someone puts my mind in a blender and nothing makes sense at first,” says Riedstra. “But after productively struggling through it, the knowledge locks in. Reasoning abstractly and quantitatively should be a standard in every subject. No one ever made those connections for me as a student.”

Robyn Riedstra, a math teacher at William Sheppard Middle School, poses for a portrait on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019. Photo: Jim Gensheimer.

The Math Teacher Institute offered Riedstra hands-on experience with manipulatives like algebra tiles, squares and rectangles that provide a visual example of quadratic equations. She had failed algebra several times before finally passing. Algebra was her Trojan horse, the impediment between her and a degree.

Riedstra never anticipated teaching math, but she felt differently after completing her master’s degree and the summer institute. She understood the mathematical concepts and felt capable of teaching them to the next generation. By the fall, Riedstra had interviewed for four teaching jobs, received three offers and accepted her first position teaching math at William Sheppard Middle School in Alum Rock. She is changing the narrative about math at the school where she teaches.

“With my students, I’m transparent about the fact that I’m learning too,” says Riedstra. “They see me struggle and figure things out. The more they can have a positive struggle in my class, the more they can be wrong out loud and learn how to solve problems, the greater risks they can take elsewhere.”

Her classroom is decorated in flyers illustrating the Standards of Mathematical Practice. Her master’s hood, graduation cap and gown hang on the wall. When she looks at it, she puts a hand to her heart.

“That gown is the best thing I see when I walk in the door every day,” says Riedstra. “Besides my family, it’s one of the things I’m most proud of in my entire life. This is where I’m supposed to be.”

Illustrations: (Linda) Shuk Lam Sze To, ’20 BFA Graphic Design.


Julia Halprin Jackson

Julia Halprin Jackson is a writer on San Jose State University's Strategic Communications and Marketing team.

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