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New NSF grant to increase math teacher diversity

A math teacher writes on a white board
The Washington Professional Educator Standards Board has listed mathematics education as a shortage area in the state for the last 25 years.

A four-year, $1.12 million grant from the National Science Foundation will help Washington State University recruit and retain quality mathematics teachers from historically marginalized groups.

The project is being led by Tariq Akmal, director of teacher education in the College of Education and chair of the college’s Department of Teaching and Learning. He is being aided by co-investigators Kristin Lesseig, an associate professor of mathematics education at WSU Vancouver, also in the College of Education, and William Hall, an assistant professor of mathematics education in the College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Mathematics and Statistics.

The project, funded through the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program, aims to recruit and support 24 diverse candidates in becoming certified secondary mathematics teachers. To accomplish this goal, Akmal said the project will focus on recruitment of first-generation college students, those for whom English is not a first language, and students of color. The program will support scholars in both Pullman and Vancouver.

Hall, who was a Noyce scholar himself during graduate school, said high school math teachers can have a tremendous impact on how students learn to think and reason quantitatively, and that includes matters of civics, social justice, and fairness.

“It is not always clear that you can be passionate about those ideas and use a career in teaching high school mathematics to explore them further and serve your community at the same time,” Hall said.

A need amplified

The Washington Professional Educator Standards Board has listed mathematics education as a shortage area in the state for the last 25 years.

The issue has become more dire with the number of teachers receiving secondary mathematics endorsements steadily dropping.

Additionally, the disparity between the need and the supply becomes disproportionate when looking at high-needs districts. About 87% of Washington state teachers are white while only 53% of students are white.

Multi-step approach

In its increased effort on recruiting new mathematics teachers from marginalized groups, the team will focus on combatting misinformation about teacher wages in the state that have been a deterrent to new recruitment.

The project team also plans to identify mentors to work with their grant awardees on a periodic basis.

Debra Kowalkowski from Educational Service District (ESD) 101 and Molly Daley from ESD 112, both regional mathematics specialists, are major collaborators in the project. They will help identify and support the mentors.

Closeup of Kristin Lesseig
Kristin Lesseig

The WSU Noyce scholars will receive two years of tuition support ($12,000 each year) and then will receive additional financial, academic, and professional support as they enter the teaching profession. Scholars will receive $1000 for classroom technology and materials and support for travel to regional mathematics education conferences during their first year of teaching.

Lesseig said she hopes this removes some of the barriers students face along the path to becoming a teacher. And that those teachers can effectuate positive change.

“One positive outcome would be to have students see themselves reflected in the math teacher workforce, feel invited, or simply have the financial means to pursue this degree,” she said. “The other would be to have future secondary mathematics teachers who are committed to teaching for social justice and have the tools and resources to invite their future students into a more humanizing version of mathematics.”

Project evaluation will be conducted by WSU’s Learning Performance Research Center, led by educational psychology faculty member Chad Gotch.

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