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Working with Boston Youth to Improve Math Skills and Develop Personal Resiliency

A Conversation with Cathy Livingston of MathPower

Interview by Amanda Gutowski and Alexis Schroeder

MathPOWER, founded in 1989, takes a comprehensive approach to developing both proficiency in advanced mathematics and personal resiliency as vehicles to bring about transformational change in the lives of urban youth. Its mission has taken on greater significance with the release of a 2006 report titled “The Toolbox Revisited,” which established that the best predictor of college completion within four years of graduating from high school was proficiency in advanced mathematics (defined as one year of high school math beyond Algebra II). MathPower offers several programs designed to close the achievement gap in mathematics, including mathematics intervention programs, teacher coaching, and professional development within the Boston Public Schools for grades K-8. MathPower provides after school and summer programs for students in grades 6-9, and is now piloting a comprehensive, integrated approach to education at the Dearborn Middle School in Boston.

We spoke with Executive Director Cathy Livingston about MathPower’s purpose, programs, and successes. This interview is the first in a series of NPi stories featuring the 2011 class of social innovators at Root Cause’s Social Innovation Forum. Read more about the Social Innovation Forum here.

NPi: What is the value of a comprehensive approach when working with youth?

Cathy Livingston: A lot of how we chose our approach is based on our broad and comprehensive research on urban youth. There are several key studies that serve as the cornerstone to our approach. One was by the U.S. Department of Education that established that currently the best predictor of which students are going to graduate from college is their competency level in mathematics. And at the same time that study was published, another study was being released that examined the biggest obstacles to being successful in learning math for students in urban settings.

What the research has shown regarding obstacles to success is that students give up too easily, that they basically don’t persist to finding solutions for solving their math problems. Their behavior suggests that if they don’t get the correct answer on the first try, they conclude that they can’t understand it and they just give up.

Research from other areas of youth development has shown that kids who live in high stress situations—sometimes it’s economically driven, sometimes it has to do with family relationships, a lot of it is living close to or below the poverty line—have a tendency to  give up too easily. Fortunately, youth development researchers have shown that there are ways to help kids build their resiliency skills so they’re able to withstand setbacks. Resiliency skills enable students to absorb, process, or alleviate the stressful issues, or find support for coping with them. So we combine an understanding of the significant importance of helping students develop proficiency in mathematics while at the same time helping them build their resiliency skills.

We integrate our approaches in our work with students in our after-school and summer programs, and we’re trying to bring these methods into the school work we do as well. As part of our programs, we help students develop their social competency, enabling them to communicate more effectively with the different groups that they interact with on a daily basis: peers, teachers, parents, bus drivers, adults in their community, etc.

We also do a lot of programming focused on conflict resolution, which is a huge area in which students need assistance to learn the skills that are helpful in resolving those issues in a positive way so that they and others are not harmed. We also have programming designed to teach students that they are individuals and to help them develop a sense of autonomy, a sense that they can believe that they as an individual have the right to envision a future. Our main goal is to help students believe that their life doesn’t have to be the same as an older sibling, parent, or cousin, or people around them. We help them develop a vision for the future and we talk a lot about the steps they can take every day and how those steps build toward a better future.

So if our programs were to just focus on the math, I think we wouldn’t be able to be as successful with students as we are. We would be ignoring what the research has demonstrated: The stress factors in the lives of urban youth often lead them to a sense of hopelessness that it is impossible for them to change their life circumstances.

NPi: Why math?

CL: I think math is a difficult subject to learn for students who haven’t had a lot of experience with abstract thinking. And many of these students come to school without having the numeracy readiness that they would likely acquire in more affluent areas. So it is a struggle to learn a subject which you can’t see any need for or benefit of in your life. It is difficult because in our society we give people permission not to learn math by saying things like, “I was never good at math,” “I don’t like it,” etc.—and so it is an area where if you’re leaning toward giving up, you’ve got permission from society to do that. But here’s the thing, we know from the research that shows that math is the best predictor of who will graduate from college that it is a VERY POWERFUL tool to put in your academic backpack. Here’s the real significance of this research: The other factors that have to do with college academic success have to do with socioeconomic standing, the highest level of your parents’ education, your gender, your race or ethnicity. These are issues that none of us in social justice work can really change. You are born with these conditions. But we can change your level of educational competence. So if we can put math proficiency in your toolkit, you have a much better chance of going on a path in life that’s going to give you many more options.

Some data: Currently the state is using the MCAS exams as the benchmark of how we’re doing in getting students really prepared for postsecondary success, whether it be in work or future learning. So if we take a look at Boston Public Schools last year and the 2010 MCAS scores in math, only about 30% of 8th graders are demonstrating that they are proficient or advanced in their understanding of grade-level math. If we unpack that 30%—that’s an average—let me tell you how it breaks out. Of that 30%, 80% of those students are Asian American, 55% are white, and somewhere between 19 and 22% are African American or Hispanic. So there’s a huge racial divide when we really look at which students we are successfully preparing for post-secondary success.

Prior to doing this job, I was the vice president of academic affairs at one of the state’s public community colleges. I saw all these students coming to college unprepared for college-level work; 90% of students typically place into remedial math. And the record of students’ succeeding once they find out they’re not ready for college work underscores why we need to address this issue at an earlier age in students’ careers. Fewer than 20% of those students who test into a remedial course ever make it to a college-level course. In this knowledge-based economy, people need skills in math and numeracy; they need to be able to crunch data, to be able to interpret data, etc. Because of the high infusion of technology into our lives, there is almost no field of study or work currently in which you don’t have to look at data to make decisions. So we feel like our work in math reinforces what Robert Moses—he’s the one who started the Algebra Project— said 20 years ago, that “Math is a civil right.” I think he’s absolutely right, even more so today.

NPi: Where do you see MathPower fitting into larger waves happening right now in social change and in how learning is changing?

CL: In terms of social change, I think that part of what makes us an innovator is that we have the capacity and interest to look at research and we’re able to translate it into action. When I say that to people they say, “Yeah, so what, people should be able to do that.” The bottom line is, people don’t do that. They keep doing the same thing over and over even though it is not really getting results. So I think that part of what we’re doing is demonstrating for people that if you’re able to integrate research with different skills—our ability to look at math and look at how people learn—you can create learning environments that embody those multiple aspects and actually then find ways to make them even better.

I started off as a math teacher. I am a first generation college student. My grandparents never finished fourth or fifth grade, so I understand the power of education in giving me a quality of life. I’m not talking about money when I say that; I’m talking about the ability to participate in life and have some understanding of what it is all about. I ended up teaching middle school and high school math, and eventually started a doctoral program in math. When I got about halfway through, I took an elective on how kids learn to read because I had kids in my class in high school who were struggling with language, and I felt ill-equipped as a teacher to understand how to help them. That field just grabbed me because language is such a rich field; it connects cultures, it connects to history.

So I went on to become a reading specialist and eventually I did my doctoral work in creating effective learning environments across the lifespan. I learned as a teacher that if we were more effective at creating learning environments, more people would have the benefit I had of education. So I think that we are demonstrating that we don’t have to live with what is, we can find ways to make it better. And we have results to show our impact, results that I think are pretty amazing. We’ve outpaced Boston Public Schools’ math results of moving students into the higher categories of proficient or advanced standing by a minimum of five times the BPS rate.

So how does this fit into changes happening in learning and education? I think there are a lot of little incubators out there now in both the K-12 and the higher education levels that are just walking away from the status quo and saying, “We’re going to start over and we’re going to figure out a better way to do this.” I think there’s a growing momentum to do that. I’m not quite ready to give up on public schools because I think public education is really critical in a democracy, especially with the growing economic gap we’re moving toward in this country. When you’re in a public school setting, you at least get a chance to get to know people different from yourself. So I think that all these incubators out there, including our work, lead to changes in how we approach students and how we help people learn across the lifespan.

NPi: What impact has MathPower had and where is it going?

CL: When I first took this job five years ago, what jumped out at me was the fact that these MCAS scores in Boston in math were flat for the most part. No matter how much money is infused in the schools, there’s very little rate of change in getting more students into the proficient or advanced categories. And yet when I looked at these same students and their literacy scores, here’s what I found. Their literacy scores are twice as strong as their math scores. Now, as a dedicated educator, I’m smart enough to know that if these students can reason with words, they can reason with numbers. I also know because I’m a reading specialist how the field of reading has approached working with young children and the skill sets that can be developed and taught to reading specialists about how to diagnose where students are struggling and how to intervene to help them over that hump. And that’s why their literacy scores are so much higher: The educators have the skill sets they need to help them learn. So we’ve brought that level of thinking to how math is taught and learned.

Our impact is that by using a more sophisticated model of how students acquire mathematical understanding, we can demonstrate positive benefits to students’ learning. We understand that if math is sequential and cumulative, and that if students are missing some of the rungs on the ladder of learning that help them climb from one level to the next, they are not able to benefit from their current classroom instruction in math because they don’t have the foundation to really grasp what they are being taught. Our programs help teachers learn how to find those gaps in prior learning for the students and we teach them how to integrate instruction to fill in students’ gaps in prior learning, thus making it possible for students to benefit from grade level instruction. Our results show that as teachers gain these skills, their students show remarkable rates of improvement in acquiring the math understanding they need to learn higher level concepts. So in the two schools we worked in last year with this intervention model, our rate of change from failure/needs improvement to proficient was more than five times the rate of gain when compared with schools in which we didn’t work. Some people may say this isn’t much gain, but it is a huge gain when one is familiar with current outcomes as well as the challenges in making this happen.

In 2009, among the minority population in Boston, which is 76% of the school district, only 16-19% of those students scored in the proficient or higher categories. Last year those numbers were up to 25%, and we helped push those numbers up. So I think we’ve figured out that there is a way to do this, a realization that’s come partly through our work as Root Cause’s Social Innovators and another award for which we’ve also been nominated. I think we are ready to try to design a replicable model, so that we can have a greater impact. So that’s where we’re trying to go. It really is exciting work. We can actually see the difference we make in kids’ lives!

NPi: Where could you use help?

CL: We can use help with people helping to support our work financially. But we also have in-kind needs. We’re in the process of expanding our board, and we are looking for board members who are excited about our mission and who have experienced skill sets in helping organizations like ours grow. In order to expand, we need help with strategic and project planning, building a business plan, building a long-term funding model, etc. We could use help on how to integrate social media into our work as well. There’s a variety of areas where we could use help if people are interested in getting involved, and I encourage anyone interested to contact me directly.

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