Berkeley adds Math for America to help solve STEM education equation

With the introduction of Math for America Berkeley this semester, UC Berkeley is stepping up its efforts to address a critical national issue — the failure of the United States to educate the scientists, tech experts, engineers and mathematicians demanded by the economy.

Marlo Warburton teaches math to middle schoolers

Marlo Warburton solves an equation with her class of Longfellow Middle School seventh and eighth graders. (Peg Skorpinski photo)

Six outstanding math and science teachers from urban public schools in Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco and Sunnyvale have just entered Math for America Berkeley’s five-year Master Teacher Fellowship.

The program is designed to help the fellows take their teaching to a higher level and to give them the intellectual engagement and professional development that they need to stay in a demanding and undercompensated job, according to Nicci Nunes, Math for America Berkeley’s director. All six are middle- and high-school teachers.

“They’re all very interested in helping more students become successful, particularly in algebra, which is a gatekeeper class for future opportunities,” says Nunes, who taught chemistry and physics in San Francisco and Concord public schools before coming to Berkeley to direct the Cal Teach program six years ago.

Ultimately, Math for America’s aim is to improve STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education in the United States by recruiting, training and retaining top teachers who might otherwise be lured from the classroom by the rewards of academia and industry. The nonprofit was founded in New York in 2004 by James Simons, who earned a Ph.D. in math at Berkeley before going on to be a successful technology entrepreneur; Berkeley brings the number of Math for America locations in the United States to seven.

Math for America Berkeley is a complement to the six-year-old Cal Teach program, which exposes math and science undergraduates to teaching as a possible career. Before Cal Teach, only a few math and science graduates were going into teaching each year; now, 190 students are enrolled in Cal Teach classes.

The combination of the two programs provides “a new component for our mission in STEM education,” says Mark Richards, executive dean of Berkeley’s College of Letters and Science. “It’s something we haven’t been doing, and the need is enormous.”

Mark Richards

Mark Richards

“Elite institutions are not in the business of encouraging students to become public school teachers, or K-12 teachers. That’s particularly true of the sciences,” says Richards, who is a professor of earth and planetary sciences as well as dean of the Division of Mathematical and Physical Sciences. “Professors think of their students going into research, academia or positions at Google. Most faculty at Berkeley do not traditionally view undergraduate students here as likely to go into the teaching profession — so this is really different.”

In the last five or 10 years, Richards says, arguments in education circles about pedagogy have reached a consensus about what matters most: It’s the quality of the teachers.
So both Cal Teach and Math for America take top students and accomplished teachers and give them what they need to become leaders in their profession.

Both programs have been strongly supported by Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, who sees strengthening STEM education for all K-12 students as an important part of Berkeley’s mission as a public university.

“Math for America is a critical program for Berkeley, and goes hand in hand with Cal Teach in helping to build a stronger cadre of math and science teachers in the nation’s public schools,” says Birgeneau, who will speak at a private event Wednesday night honoring the first cohort of fellows.

Among them is Marlo Warburton, an algebra teacher at Berkeley’s Longfellow Middle School and a good example of the type of teacher for whom Math for America is designed.

For the last five years, Warburton has been part of a significant turnaround in student achievement in math at Longfellow.

By bringing in strong teachers, Warburton among them, and cutting class sizes, Longfellow has raised the proportion of eighth-graders who are proficient in algebra from 10 percent five years ago to 64 percent. All groups of students showed dramatic improvement.

It matters for the students, because algebra is the foundation for all other math courses, for the study of science, especially physics and chemistry, and for doing well on the SAT and going to college, says Warburton. Students who don’t do well in algebra also are more likely to drop out of school, she adds.

A Berkeley graduate (’94) with a master’s in teaching from Mills College, Warburton has worked with Cal Teach students and leaped at the opportunity to apply for the Math for America fellowship.

Nicci Nunes

Nicci Nunes

The program provides a $50,000 stipend over five years. The hope is to increase the number of teacher-fellows in the future, as funding permits.

During the first two years, the fellows will continue to teach in their schools while coming to campus for professional development, including participation in Project IMPACT in the Graduate School of Education and through IISME, Industry Initiatives for Science and Math Education, a partnership of Bay Area companies and the Lawrence Hall of Science.

The third year is designed as a sabbatical from teaching, with the fellows free to study whatever they want at Berkeley. The fourth and fifth years send them back to the classroom with all they’ve learned.

“They’re saying, ‘We want you to continue to do what you do, and dream up new ways of doing it — and we will give you what you need to do it. We want to help you be the best teacher you could be,'” says Warburton.

Teaching algebra to urban school kids can be a challenge, she says. She spends long hours preparing ways of engaging her students and making sure each class minute is put to good use.

“Urban kids take some convincing,” she says.

Math for America’s whole idea, as its founder, Simons, told a congressional committee studying STEM education earlier this year, is that better teachers will mean better math and science education. (He also advocates raising compensation for math and science teachers as a way of attracting top minds to the profession.)

Warburton has seen that firsthand at Longfellow — in higher algebra competence and in students’ rising interest in math. And that goes to show, she says, the fallacy at the heart of the popular belief: That some people just can’t learn math.