Heather Thompson Bolles
Increased demands on secondary mathematics teachers and community college instructors, changing technology and modes of communication, and simply the need to assess the effectiveness of the program prompted the Fall 2007 distribution of a survey regarding the Master of School Mathematics (MSM) program. Sent to MSM alumni, current MSM teachers, and teachers formerly enrolled in the program, the results of the survey inform decisions in the making, some of which affect the operations of the program as early as Summer 2008.
One component of the survey addressed the need to keep teachers well prepared to teach secondary mathematics in light of current trends in recent legislation. Falling in step with the No Child Left Behind federal legislation, the State of Iowa adopted the Iowa Core Curriculum, formerly the Model Core Curriculum, which guides school districts as they deliver instructional content that is challenging and meaningful to students. “The curriculum identifies the essential concepts and skill sets for literacy, mathematics, science and social studies, as well as 21st century learning skills.(1)” In the area of mathematics, Iowa recognizes four main strands of content for learners in grades 9-12: algebra, geometry, statistics and probability, and quantitative literacy. High school mathematics teachers generally receive solid mathematics instruction in three of the four strands but generally do receive enough instruction to adequately teach statistics and probability. In addition, an increased number of high school teachers are asked to teach Advanced Placement (AP) statistics or calculus or teach dual-credit courses in statistics or calculus.(2)
Thus, one component of the survey sought to reveal how many of the teachers who had been in the MSM program or are currently enrolled in the program teach statistics and probability as a high school course, AP statistics course, or a dual-credit course. Of twenty-seven teachers who responded to the questions, seven teachers teach statistics and probability including one alumni who teaches an AP Statistics course and a current MSM teacher who teaches a dual-credit course. The AP Statistics teacher participated in a week-long Advanced Placement seminar to help prepare to teach the course. The dual-credit statistics teacher took an undergraduate course “Introduction to Probability and Statistics” similar to the statistics and probability experience of most of the respondents.
The responses justify the need for additional instruction in statistics and probability for adequate preparation to teach according to the guidelines established by the Iowa Core Curriculum and to increase the number of teachers prepared to teach AP Statistics and dual-credit statistics courses. As a result, one change being implemented in Summer 2008 is the launching of a new six-credit statistics course: Stat 410X Statistical Methods for Mathematics Teachers. This course will emphasize the content of Stat 401, Statistical Methods for Research, as well as statistical content appropriate to teach statistics courses at the high school level. Effective pedagogy for teaching statistics will be demonstrated through the use of classroom examples, activities, readings and discussions.
In the MSM survey a second priority emphasized the means by which the courses in the MSM program are taught. For the past several years, the courses have been taught through the Iowa Communications Network (ICN). This system allows participants to take courses while in different locations in the State of Iowa via live two-way audio and video communication. The fiber-optics network is owned by the State of Iowa but has been difficult to maintain. In addition, the cost of operating the network is high. Those overseeing the MSM program have known that the ICN will not be in operation much longer. Many ISU courses typically taught via the ICN are now taught online or with the use of video-streaming. In Summer 2007, two MSM class sessions were taught via video-streaming. The use of video-streaming received mixed reviews. Survey results confirmed the mixed reviews.
Respondents expressed concerns with the use of video-streaming, highlighting feelings of isolation and glitches with the technology. Many respondents indicated appreciation for the interaction with other teachers in the program. They conveyed the fear that they would lose the ability to connect with other teachers and would not be able to interact with others regarding MSM coursework and common matters related to the teaching profession. In addition, some responded with concern that questions asked would not receive immediate attention by the instructors. Others addressed the need for quality equipment, both for the MSM faculty and for the teachers. They questioned whether the time required to learn how to use the equipment and the frustration in learning would be overcome.
Overseers of the MSM program anticipated these responses and considered incorporating an on-site component should course transmission move from the ICN to video-streaming. The survey asked respondents to consider the length of time they would consider coming to Iowa State University for face-to-face interaction and instruction. Of the twenty-seven respondents, only three stated that they would not be willing to come for length of time, one preferred only one day, while the remaining 23 stated that they would come for a minimum of two days while others were willing to come for two weeks or more. As the respondents submitted their replies anonymously, overseers of the program do not know how many of those who responded took MSM courses on campus and how many took courses off campus via the ICN. By and large respondents seemed pleased at the opportunity to interact face-to-face with other teachers and faculty in the program.
Thus, as trends point to change with the ICN, faculty in the MSM program anticipate incorporating video-streaming with some on campus face-to-face interaction. While technology concerns will need to be addressed, these changes open the opportunity for teachers outside Iowa to participate in the program, expanding the influence of Iowa State University.
Respondents’ Assessment of the MSM Program
A third component to the survey brought to light reasons why respondents enrolled in the program, whether professional and personal goals were met by the program, and how the program can be improved. Overall, most of those surveyed responded positively to participation in the MSM program. Most of the MSM alumni respondents noted success in moving up in their positions as well as meeting their financial goals. Respondents appreciated the opportunity to build relationships with other teachers and improve their mathematical understanding.
Survey responses highlighted various ways in which the MSM program could be improved. Some respondents indicated appreciation for the strength of the mathematics instruction of the program but commented on the desire for increased emphasis on mathematics education, specifically ways in which students learn mathematics and how teaching mathematics can be improved. Others expressed the need for more instruction on teaching mathematics to struggling high school students. Some responses identified the intensity of the course schedules during the summers leaving little time to refresh after one school year and to prepare for the next school year. The cost of the program also weighed on the teachers of the program. Some recommended a stipend to help reduce expenses.
Respondents gave mixed comments on the current requirement of writing a creative component to complete the master’s degree. One individual wrote that the emphasis on mathematics in the creative component detracted from his/her focus on students. Others stated that they were overwhelmed by the creative component and questioned what topics to research and which faculty member(s) to consult. Some respondents praised the creative component and appreciated the opportunity to show themselves and others that they could complete such a feat. Overall, MSM faculty members take seriously the suggestions for improvement.
In summary, the responses to the Master of School Mathematics survey validated concerns of the MSM faculty and students as well as brought to light suggestions for improvement. The Department of Mathematics appreciates all responses and contributions for the advancement of the program.
(2) Dual-credit courses are those taken by high school students in which they may earn both high school and college credit. In order to teach these courses, teachers must have earned a master’s degree with a minimum of 15 graduate credits in the targeted subject, namely mathematics for this discussion.