Bank Street “CPR”: Revitalizing Math Education
Math has long been a challenging subject for students and teachers alike. Fortunately, the movement to make it more accessible is gaining ground. Actress Danica McKellar scored a hit last fall with her new book, Math Doesn’t Suck (Hudson Street Press, 2007), which encourages middle school girls through fractions and algebra with clear explanations and confidence-building assurances. “Acne sucks. Mean people suck,” McKellar writes. “But math is actually a good thing.”
That’s something Bank Street-trained teachers have long known: the college’s Leadership in Mathematics Education program celebrates its 20th anniversary in Spring 2008. It is the only program in the country that trains teachers to be confident in their own math abilities, and also trains educators to lead math reform efforts in schools.
“We feel that teachers need to experience mathematics not as recipes or as rules to follow, but rather as the study of relationships and the science of pattern,” says Hal Melnick, the program’s director.
Unfortunately, approximately 50 to 80 percent of the teachers Melnick encounters start with a negative perception of their mathematical abilities. Many of these teachers learned math—and promptly forgot it—through the “drill and kill” method. Bank Street’s leadership program works to overcome these negative perceptions of math by re-educating participants and showing them the reasoning behind mathematical concepts. In addition, it exposes them to cutting edge professional development strategies. And it teaches them the history of mathematics reform efforts so educators can affect change at various levels.
Speaking of math reform, many Bank Street alumni are active in efforts nationwide. Take Lucy West, who runs a Manhattan-based math education consulting company called Metamorphosis: Teaching Learning Communities. She’s worked in 20 school districts—from Yakima, Washington to Lowell, Massachusetts—in the past four years. Districts hire West to coach math teachers and principals on methods to boost teacher content knowledge, and how to make lesson planning more rigorous. Also, she suggests ways to monitor student progress on a near-daily basis. When she leaves, the district has “a cadre of coaches, a math initiative, and the capacity to keep it going,” she says. She credits Bank Street with giving her many “a-ha” moments that led her to her math career; her original training was in conflict mediation.
Indeed, many Bank Street math leaders don’t come from a mathematics background. “I am the poster child for the idea that math ability can be developed,” says alum Robin Hummel ’08, an education consultant in Huntington, NY. Originally a history major, she was in her early 40’s when she participated in the Bank Street program. Now, “everywhere I go I see math. I see patterns and connections,” says Hummel. She recently shared Bank Street’s methods of discovery, collaboration and deep understanding through a professional development program she led for a dozen Cherry Hill, New Jersey teachers. Her program has already paid off: student test scores rose considerably after these teachers implemented her strategies. One teacher even decided to apply to Bank Street herself.
These reform efforts can’t come fast enough; recent international comparisons have put American 15-year-olds toward the bottom of the pack in math literacy and understanding. Teachers today “have to teach differently than the way they were taught as children,” Melnick says. “What was good enough for them when they were in school is no longer enough for their kids today. The world requires deep appreciation for mathematical ideas”—not just memorized formulas. And it is this deeper level that Bank Street’s Leadership in Mathematics Education program hopes to bring to its students—and the schools that these graduates will eventually go on to lead.#