Rockford teachers earn master’s degrees with specialization in middle school math
DeKalb, Ill.—It’s simple math, really.
Take a small army of dedicated middle school teachers. Add to that a highly-specialized master’s degree program that expands their expertise—not only in mathematics, but also in adolescent identity formation and in teaching methods that stress real-life connections for pre-teens.
The results are spectacular, according to Northern Illinois University (NIU) researchers.
Three years ago, NIU received a U.S. Department of Education grant through the Illinois State Board of Education to launch a master’s degree program with a middle school mathematics specialization. The grant helped create a partnership between NIU and Rockford Public Schools, whereby Rockford educators could enroll tuition-free in the master’s program, one of the few of its kind in the Midwest.
Now, 20 Rockford teachers are among the program’s first graduates. They received their master’s degrees during the NIU Graduate School commencement Friday, May 13, at the NIU Convocation Center.
The effect of the master’s degree program is exponential, considering that the 20 teachers taught mathematics to more than 1,000 students over two years.
“The program has been a huge success,” said Mathematical Sciences Professor Mary Shafer, who, along with colleague Helen Khoury, served as co-director of the $1 million “Excellence in the Middle” program.
“An analysis of ISAT scores for students of the teachers in our program shows significant growth in student knowledge,” Shafer said. “Generally speaking, they outscored the rest of the middle school students in the district.”
NIU researchers attribute other significant gains to the master’s program as well. For example, during the Rockford teachers’ first year in the program, their students’ test scores on an NIU-developed assessment of mathematics knowledge jumped by 11 percent. During the teachers’ second year in the program, their students’ test scores soared by 27 percent.
Bala Hosmane of NIU’s Division of Statistics, along with Shafer and Khoury, presented the research findings this spring at the U.S. Department of Education’s Mathematics and Science Partnership Conference in Baltimore and at the American Educational Research Association’s annual conference in New Orleans.
Teachers also are singing the program’s praises.
Jennifer Meinke, a fifth-grade teacher at Washington Academy in Rockford, said her students have “benefitted tremendously.” Through the program, she says, she became more adept at using higher-level mathematics “to enrich the content for the students who are ready, while still supporting the students who are struggling.”
Jim Sheridan, mathematics education leader at the Rockford Environmental Science Academy, said accommodating students with wide-ranging abilities is among the biggest challenges facing teachers.
“In every class, we have students of varying mathematical backgrounds and abilities,” Sheridan said. “The Excellence in the Middle program has provided me with insight as to how to reach all of my students.”
He also notes that teachers who completed the program are now taking leadership roles within their respective school settings.
“Drs. Khoury and Shafer have fostered a community of teacher leaders,” Sheridan said.
The teachers also welcome the specialized training for teaching math in the middle years. Initial certification programs in Illinois certify teachers for either kindergarten through ninth grade, or for the sixth through 12th grades. Yet, as any teacher knows, curricula and student needs vary widely at different grade levels.
The middle school years are particularly challenging for teachers and students alike. During adolescence, students are changing physically, emotionally, socially and cognitively. And these changes occur at different rates from one student to the next.
Rockford teachers in the Excellence in the Middle program completed coursework in such areas as advanced mathematics, teaching models and educational psychology for middle school students. Meanwhile, NIU professors visited the teachers in their classrooms, established support groups and helped nurture a learning community.
To foster real-world connections in their classrooms, the teachers also took additional courses in outside subject areas that rely heavily on mathematics, such as engineering and physics.
“I learned a lot more about why I teach mathematics,” said Carolyn Meingast, an eighth-grade mathematics teacher at Washington Academy.
The Rockford teachers also completed research-based projects within their classrooms and were encouraged to attend national conferences on mathematics education.
Amanda Shuga, a fourth-grade teacher at Ellis Arts Academy, said: “I was given the opportunity to attend two mathematics conventions where I attended numerous sessions about cutting-edge mathematics research and presentation styles.” She presented her own research at a national convention last fall.
“We expect that the Excellence in the Middle program will have a big impact on Rockford schools,” NIU’s Khoury said. “The impact is first on the teachers. They now have more content knowledge of mathematics. They understand better how middle school students learn mathematics. And they are better equipped to implement age-specific lessons.
“Ultimately, we hope to inspire students and help them find mathematics more meaningful,” she added. “We want them to understand how it’s connected to so many areas of everyday life.”
From the June 15-21, 2011 issue
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