Indiana University  Research & Creative Activity Spring 2002 • Volume XXIV Number 3


G e t t i n g from A to B

Dressed all in black, with a tiny ponytail pulling back his salt-and-pepper hair, William Frascella cuts an intense figure. When he talks, his hands dance. Long fingers flare out, then in, then suddenly both hands rub together and explode apart in an upraised pose to emphasize another point.

As director of the Indiana University Center for Mathematics Education, William Frascella is working to reform mathematics education throughout the state. Courtesy photo.

Frascella’s a reformer, and he has a lot of points to make. Like this one, about his approach to teaching math: “If you love math—and most research Ph.D.’s do—that love has to be constantly balanced with love of your students, in the sense of wanting to share ideas with them. Math is an enhancing thing, and that’s what you want to share. The sharing is the way the love is expressed.”

As director of the Indiana University Center for Mathematics Education and the Indiana Mathematics Initiative, Frascella is out to overhaul how math is taught to Indiana’s schoolchildren. He uses a geometric metaphor to describe what he calls the “messy business” of math education reform: “You’re trying to go from A to B, from where you are now to where you think things could be,” he says. “And you have to make a decision: Do you want to draw a straight line between A and B?

“Mathematicians like to do that,” he continues. “But in the real world, going from A to B sometimes looks like a random walk, and if you’re only interested in straight lines, you’re not going to get to B.”

Frascella’s journey from A to B began in the mid-’90s, when the IU Center for Mathematics Education was formed. The center’s founding mission was to create a bridge between the disciplines of mathematics and education at IU, a special interest Frascella developed during a stint as chair of the mathematics and computer science department at IU South Bend. (The two departments have since split).

Around the same time that the CME was created, Frascella also made contact with the Middle Grades Improvement Network, a state consortium focused on improving sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade education in urban Indiana school districts. Like Frascella, the MGIN was interested in helping teachers understand and implement new national math education standards.

With Frascella as the principal investigator, the MGIN and Frascella applied to the National Science Foundation to fund the Indiana Mathematics Initiative. In 1997, the NSF awarded the IMI $2 million for five years. Last fall, Frascella applied to the NSF again for funding to extend the IMI to elementary- and high-school math education as well.

In the IMI’s first year, Frascella concentrated on getting new teaching materials, which were aligned with national standards, put to use in the grant’s 10 participating school districts: Anderson, Decatur Township, East Chicago, Fort Wayne, Gary, Hammond, Pike Township, South Bend, Vigo County, and Warren Township. “Bad materials put a ceiling on what you can do,” Frascella says. So he set out to convince teachers, school administrators, and textbook publishers that adopting new materials was the right thing to do.

“I went to each district,” Frascella recalls. “There was a certain tentativeness, but committed people in each district wanted this grant to work. So getting the materials adopted was really a joint effort.”

The collaboration between public schools and the university spurred by the IMI is unusual, according to Frascella, and it’s been a crucial key to the initiative’s success. “The power of the IMI is that it’s a grassroots movement” he says. “The districts have real ownership in it.”

Since the new materials were adopted, the IMI has sponsored seminars and professional development workshops, teaching teachers how to work with manipulatives, use computer applications, develop alternative assessment techniques, and foster active learning on the part of students.

“The model we’re fighting is the abstract ‘math as catechism’ approach, where the student just turns the pages of the book,” Frascella explains. “We’re getting teachers to translate the standards into effective learning experiences. We’re focusing on starting a tradition.”

Teachers in the trenches of the IMI’s participating districts call the initiative exceptional. “It’s one of the most important professional development opportunities we’ve ever had,” says Donna McLeish, curriculum coordinator for math and science in Vigo County (Terre Haute) School Corp., where eighth-graders have shown substantial increases in state test scores in math. “One of the greatest benefits is that middle-school teachers now know each other and share ideas. Prior to IMI, it was all competitive.”

According to Robert Trammel, the IMI’s district coordinator for the Fort Wayne Community Schools, “more students are taking high levels of mathematics and scoring better on local and state assessments because of the IMI.”

Still, change is never simple, and the IMI has faced its hurdles in spreading the word about new math teaching, including ever-changing state regulations and the complicated nature of the public school workplace. But overall, observes Frascella, the teachers and administrators involved in the IMI have been remarkable. “I’ve been so impressed with their energy, intelligence, and good will,” he says.

And to a reformer like Frascella, good will is all you need. “Raw will connected to good sense and sound noble ideas,” he says, “is what changes the world.” —L. B.

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