When mathematician John Ewing started lobbying state governments to adopt a new model for keeping top teachers in the classroom, he anticipated all the usual pushback over funding and resources. One thing he didn’t anticipate was a resistance to the idea in general.
In education right now, “the focus is on everything that’s not working," he says. By contrast, his model "invests in teachers that are doing a really good job.”
In 2009, fellow mathematician and philanthropist Jim Simons called and asked Ewing to help him take over his fledgling nonprofit to provide continuing education for K-12 math teachers in New York City. But the organization, called Math for America (MfA), eventually evolved into a larger fellowship program aimed at cultivating and keeping top science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) teachers in public schools.
It’s an appealing concept at a time when keeping good teachers is becoming harder and harder.
On average, one-third of teachers leave the profession within five years. Burnout is blamed for the short tenure. A recent report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that 46 percent of teachers say they feel daily stress on a level that’s shared by doctors and lawyers.
When teachers are that stressed, the report notes, it not only compromises their health and quality of life but also adversely impacts their teaching performance. That, in turn, can harm students' academic performance and behavior. The report recommends mentoring programs, social emotional learning and mindfulness as proven ways to improve teacher well-being and student outcomes.
That's where MfA comes in.
MfA is built on the notion that great public school teachers should be given the same resources and be treated with the same respect as their higher education counterparts. Teachers go through a rigorous application process and, if accepted, they receive a four-year fellowship and annual $15,000 stipend. Fellows, or master teachers as they’re called at MfA, are required to participate in and present workshops held at the nonprofit's headquarters. Teachers can also apply for additional financial support to attend national seminars or even trips abroad to enhance exposure to their subject.
Currently, about 1,000 public school teachers -- roughly 10 percent of all New York City STEM teachers -- are in the program.
Like those facilitating this microscopes workshop, teachers are focused on collaboration and community through MfA's professional learning opportunities.
The MfA Experience
High school math teacher Abigail Kirchman says becoming an MfA master teacher has kept her from even thinking about leaving the profession. The stipend alone means Kirchman hasn't had to make quality-of-life sacrifices that other colleagues have. She doesn’t have to commute across three boroughs, for instance, and can afford healthy groceries.
What's more, far from being burned out, Kirchman’s actually happier with her chosen line of work than she was when she first arrived in New York about five years ago. That’s largely due to the new techniques she’s learned and the community she’s found with other math and science teachers at MfA.
“I think all teachers sometimes feel like they’re alone and they’re the only ones struggling with something,” she says. “Here, I have other teachers who are experts and I can ask them anything.”
The program has completely changed the way she teaches. Her own math courses back in high school, she says, tended to follow the same formula: listen to the teacher explain a lesson in class, go home and practice the lesson with an assignment from the book, and then show your understanding through exams and quizzes.
Kirchman doesn’t do much -- if any -- of that.
Through fellow MfA teachers, she learned about "mastery-based teaching," which focuses the student on understanding a mathematical concept rather than on knowing enough to pass a test. In fact, Kirchman doesn’t even give tests.
Instead, she spends much of her time devising new ways to explain and practice concepts. She now uses origami, for example, in her geometry lessons because the tactile nature of the craft can reach different types of learners. And last summer, she and another master teacher went to Morocco and Spain to study geometric design in Islamic art. This past winter, the two gave an MfA seminar on the subject, and Kirchman plans to eventually develop a lesson for her students.
Kirchman takes about a dozen MfA seminars each year, in addition to presenting some of them. She says the exposure to new ideas plays a big role in changing her students’ ideas about math, too. At the beginning of each school year, she has her kids write her a letter about their expectations.
“Every single one of them hates math and has a lot of anxiety around it,” she says. But within months, “students understand that if they don’t get it today,” it's OK.
At an MfA course, teachers engage in a series of puzzle-based activities that emphasize mathematical thinking.
Expanding the Model
Perhaps not surprisingly, MfA’s teacher retention statistics are far better than the city’s average.
Every year, about 9 percent of New York City teachers don’t come back. For MfA teachers, the attrition rate is just 4 percent. But many of those who do leave still remain in the education profession, says MfA President Ewing.
Despite the good results, MfA hasn't been able to sell their program outside of New York. The hard part now isn't convincing governments that they should devote more money to star teachers, says Ewing, it's finding the funding.
MfA offered to provide $2.5 million in matching grants to other major cities, including Washington, D.C., and Boston, but most couldn’t come up with the matching funds. In 2012, President Obama set aside federal money to support STEM master teacher programs across the country, including MfA, but most of that funding was stripped away. More recently, Ewing says they started making progress in neighboring Connecticut and even developed a pilot program with universities across eight counties. But that state’s chronic budget woes have hampered efforts to unlock funding.
MfA was able to expand the program beyond New York City -- but only to the state. That's largely because Gov. Andrew Cuomo liked the idea and funded it directly from the budget. The state ultimately expects to fund 1,000 master teachers a year at a cost of more than $15 million -- a fraction of the $20 billion the state spends on K-12 education each year.
The New York state program hosts regional offices at nine State University of New York (SUNY) campuses. That structure, says Director Josephine Salvador, creates a partnership between K-12 and higher education professionals. Secondary education teachers learn about new practices and concepts from their SUNY counterparts, and vice versa.
“It’s not higher ed dictating to K-12 teachers -- they’re peers,” says Salvador.
The collaboration is especially valuable for teachers in rural districts where they might be the only science teacher.
“Now they have multiple people they can call or email,” she says.
So far, the state program has had impressive results: Teacher attrition in the state master teachers program is a mere 2 percent. And among those who left, all but one stayed in the education profession.
Ewing hopes to eventually have an MfA model cultivating the top 10 percent of math and science teachers in every state.
“That’s upwards of 50,000 people,” he says. “Think about that. It would change the teaching profession.”