Piloting a Pre-Service Course to Produce More Algebra Project Teachers

by | Apr 6, 2022

How can the nation produce more math teachers able to reach students in underserved schools? To address this question, Dr. Nell Cobb and two experienced Algebra Project teachers from Florida are partnering with Broward College and Broward County, Florida, Public Schools (BCPS) to develop a preservice course for secondary math teachers. Broward College produces the majority of teachers for BCPS, the sixth largest school system in the country. The two-part course will provide students a microcredential in Algebra Project teaching as part of their program. The course content and pedagogy will serve as an initial framework for secondary math education in Broward County, and is also a model for other schools of education across the country that serve students of color and low income communities.

The course embodies the two elements that National Science Foundation-funded research found to underlie student engagement and learning in Algebra Project sites: the five-step Algebra Project pedagogy, and a model of social competencies for teaching: accurate empathy, cultural sensitivity and cognitive flexibility. Although these two features were developed in the late 80s, they reflect, and instantiate for the target population,

elements that are now widely advocated: learning of “big ideas”; learning that is “active”, “student-centered” and “culturally responsive.” Where these were well implemented, students were engaged and confident in their learning, went on to higher level math courses, and performed better on state tests than comparison groups of non-Algebra Project students in the same sites.

In the course, students use the five-step pedagogy to explore what to teach, how to teach, how to assess what is learned, and to create safe and productive learning environments.

The weekly class begins with “circling up” for a grounding conversation about math education, continues with a math “warm-up” activity, guest speaker from the Alliance and/or discussion of readings, small group work, and ends with student reflection and feedback. All are conducted to embody the three social competencies of the “model of excellence.” So far students have given positive feedback on the structure, facilitation, readings, and learning gained from each class session.

The instructional team consists of Dr. Nell Cobb, Algebra Project Professional Development Specialist and recently retired professor of mathematics education at DePaul University; Sara Weinberg, Algebra Project teacher on leave from Miami-Dade Public Schools now providing support for BPCS math teachers; Paola Caicado, another experienced Algebra Project teacher now serving as Mathematics Instructional Facilitator for BCPS; and Dr. Gastrid Harrigan, a former math teacher, now a BCPS principal and faculty member at Broward College. Weinberg and Caicado have both worked for ten years in Miami-Dade schools, participating in Algebra Project Professional Development Institutes and being mentored in their classrooms by Bob Moses. Their students’ performance on state tests, as well as their students’ obvious motivation and confidence to learn, led to the expansion of the Algebra Project in BCPS.

This semester, students are reading Bob Moses’ book Radical Equations, describing how a method for teaching Algebra, and for ensuring that all students can succeed at this gatekeeper course, grew out of Moses’ work in Mississippi with the Civil Rights Movement. The course interweaves this reading and others with practice in Algebra Project instructional modules. Next semester, students will read The Movement Built Us, by David Dennis Jr and David Dennis Sr, addressing the social dimensions of development of agency in underserved communities. In their third semester – the practicum – students will practice teach in the classroom of a local Algebra Project teacher.

Dr. Cobb brings a wealth of experience to the course development. She began work as a math teacher in Chicago Public Schools and led the Chicago Algebra Project. In addition to receiving her doctorate from Illinois State, she was certified as a Professional Development Specialist under McBer, Inc in Boston, MA. This group followed the research and development methods of David C. McClelland of Harvard’s Dept. of Psychology and Social Relations, which identified the competencies of excellent performers in various fields. The course also grows out of her ten-year experience using Algebra Project pedagogy in a summer camp for girls: InSTEM. She is also a specialist in Lesson Study, a widely-used teacher-centered approach to professional development.

As Bob Moses stated in his posthumously published op-ed last summer, returning to ‘normal’ in education after the COVID-19 pandemic is not good enough. Students of color and students from low-income communities continue to receive math instruction that does not engage their potential as learners. This collaborative pre-service pilot responds to the critical current need for pathways to increase the numbers of well-prepared mathematics teachers in our schools.

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