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Feature: Flight to Achievement

With cash incentives and coaching, a Texas-based initiative dramatically improves minorities’ success in science and math.

By Margaret Loftus

The following article is the cover story in the April, 2009 issue of Prism (www.prism-magazine.org).

Illustration by Alex Nabaum

Hintsa Hagos saw his dream of an engineering career slipping away. Funneled into standard Algebra I as a freshman at Malden High School in Malden, Mass., he stood to miss out on the advanced math courses that would help him gain acceptance to an engineering school. But then, during his junior year, he caught the attention of veteran math teacher Christine Nagle. “I saw a hardworking kid and asked him if he wanted to take Advanced Placement Calculus,” she recalls. “He said, ‘I can’t,’ and I said, ‘Yes, you can.'”

Thanks in part to a grant that Malden High received from the two-year-old National Math and Science Initiative, Nagle’s prediction proved correct. Aided by prep sessions and an intensive weekend course at Northeastern University, Hagos gets better grades in calculus than he did in freshman algebra and is now a competitive candidate for college engineering. “It surprised me because I had never thought that I was capable of that,” marvels Hagos. “It requires a lot of time and effort, but the grant opened the door for me.”

Hagos, who is of Ethiopian descent, is part of a surge in enrollment in AP classes, particularly among minorities, in the six states where NMSI has launched its AP Training and Incentive Program (APTIP). While AP enrollment in NMSI-participating high schools has climbed by 70 percent overall, for African-American and Hispanic students, it has leapt a stunning 122 percent. In Dallas, where NMSI is based and where the idea behind APTIP first took off, the overall number of students who received passing scores on math, science, and English AP exams in 10 participating high schools reached 1,466 in 2007 — nine times the level of 1995. The number of underrepresented minority students who passed the exam was 20 times that of 1995.

Such results have generated hope among educators that NMSI may finally achieve a breakthrough that has eluded so many outreach programs on which hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent annually: helping underrepresented minority students succeed in the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering, and math.

No Reinvention of the Wheel

NMSI was launched two years ago in response to the National Academies’ 2005 report Rising Above the Gathering Storm, which warned that U.S. competitiveness would erode without vast improvements to math and science education. As a public-private partnership backed by $140 million in corporate support, much of it from ExxonMobil, NMSI now works with school districts in six states and with 13 colleges and universities. While NMSI offers a variety of activities, its administrators attribute the initiative’s early success to two core programs, both of which have proven track records. They intend to replicate both in more states.

One is APTIP, a combination of grants to schools, extra help for students, coaching for teachers, and — for both students and teachers — financial incentives. The other is UTeach, a university-level effort to train and retain more qualified STEM teachers in an era when fully two-thirds of children are taught math and science by teachers who aren’t certified.

NMSI doesn’t try to develop new programs. Its CEO, Tom Luce, says he saw an unnecessary number of attempts to reinvent the instructional wheel during his tenure as a Bush administration assistant secretary of education from July 2005 to September 2006. “We don’t need to stop experimenting, but let’s just take a portion of our money and invest in programs that work. If [the country] keeps funding pilot programs, we’re never going to reach 50 million children,” argues Luce. “We need to step in and say, ‘This wheel works; let’s roll with it.'”

“It’s not just that they’re not learning the material. If students don’t consider cheating wrong, it’s scary to think what might happen in the future if they go on to be professionals.” —Donald Carpenter, Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Lawrence Technological University with APTIP, which tries to replicate the success of AP Strategies, a Texas nonprofit chaired by philanthropist Peter O’Donnell, NMSI is meeting an obvious need. Few statistics illustrate the yawning gap in achievement levels between white and minority students more starkly than AP results. These tests are an important measure of whether a student has reached an internationally accepted proficiency in a subject. Good scores not only brighten a high school transcript but offer successful students the chance to skip certain introductory courses in college. Nationwide, more than 15 percent of students passed AP exams last year. But African-Americans, who represented 14 percent of last year’s high school graduates, made up only 8 percent of those taking AP exams and just 4 percent of those with passing scores. NMSI Chief Program Officer John Winn, former Florida commissioner of education, blames the gap not on poverty but on stereotyping. “Many [educators] believe that Advanced Placement is for a small number of students. They don’t have the same high expectation for African-Americans and Hispanics.”

Whatever the expectations, NMSI requires participating schools to provide open enrollment in AP classes. It also encourages schools to entice capable students who haven’t enrolled. One way to identify potential AP students is by their scores on PSATs — a standardized test offered to sophomores, primarily to determine eligibility for the National Merit Scholarship Program. The NMSI grant pays for the PSAT test and for part of the $86 AP exam, which may be out of reach for low-income families. Saturday prep sessions are provided for students and professional development training for teachers. For Nagle, recruiting kids to AP calculus is nothing new, but having a framework to support her efforts is. “This gave us the extra push to go further.”
A Matter of Incentives

In nearly all of 67 participating schools, students earn $100 for each AP exam they pass. Teachers earn threshold bonuses in increments of $1,000, up to $3,000 per class, when they meet specific goals, plus $100 for each student with a passing grade. Taken together, says APTIP Director Gregg Fleischer, “all of this creates a community of expectation that the students are going to do well.”

Teacher bonuses have encountered resistance from teacher unions, which tend to view merit pay as an attempt to divide their membership and undermine the collective bargaining unit. But NMSI refuses to tinker with what it claims is a winning formula. It scrapped plans to include Washington state in APTIP, canceling a $13.2 million grant, rather than bow to union demands that the bonus payments all be pooled and used for staff development and student scholarships. In a letter to Luce, Washington Education Association President Mary Lindquist complained that “NMSI’s approach ignored the professional judgment of local teachers and would have bypassed locally elected school boards and overridden legally binding collective bargaining agreements.”

Fleischer retorts, “We’re not trying to do this to make a statement about merit pay. We’re doing it because it works, and we let the locals fight it out.”

“If they want it, great,” he adds, “but if they don’t, fine.” He is equally firm on including student cash rewards, calling incentives “the cornerstone of modern life.”

“Most kids can earn $100 faster from their jobs than by studying for an AP exam,” notes Susan Biggs, an AP chemistry teacher at Northampton High School in Northampton, Mass., one of the APTIP high schools. But the modest perk allows kids from low-income households the same kind of reward offered by more affluent parents since the dawn of report cards.

While NMSI’s cash incentives may raise some hackles within school districts, anything that gets more students doing AP work is worth a try, argues Francis Fennell, a professor of education at McDaniel College in Westminster, Md., and immediate past president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. “The carrot of funds for teachers and students is, at minimum, worth a look.”

Some research findings bolster NMSI’s claim that cash incentives work. In a 2007 study, Cornell University economist Kirabo Jackson linked NMSI’s cash bonuses for students and teachers with a 30 percent rise in the number of students who scored above 1100 on the SAT and an 8 percent increase in the number of college-bound students. Passing an AP also correlates with greater success in college, particularly among African-Americans and Hispanics.

“We’re Opening Doors”

NMSI’s other core program, UTeach, grew out of a need to boost teacher certification in STEM subjects, which the organization found has not been a high priority at universities. Enrolling 1,000 students at 13 colleges and universities nationwide, it draws on a fieldwork-intensive curriculum at the University of Texas at Austin that doubled the number of graduates qualified to be secondary math and science teachers. Of these UT graduates, 92 percent went on to teach, half of them in low-income districts. And of the teachers, 70 percent of those were still at it five years later, compared to a national retention rate of 50 percent.

“It’s not that faculty say that cheating is OK. It’s that you may create this environment that seems to support the logic that cheating is OK.” — Trevor HardingUT Austin developed its curriculum after discovering through a survey that a fourth of STEM majors had an interest in teaching. In 1996, the school created a streamlined curriculum that allowed math, science, and computer majors to receive full teaching certification with no additional time or cost. “It struck me that we could be attracting the best students to teaching rather than people who thought of teaching as a last resort,” says National Instruments co-founder Jeff Kodosky, who worked closely with UT to create the program. Graduates of UTeach have demonstrated higher grade-point averages than other graduates from Austin’s College of Natural Sciences, he points out. The results exceeded his expectations at every level, including participation of minorities and women. “I had no idea how many of the students would consider a teaching career and was delightfully surprised to see the participation and growth.”

UTeach is set up to recruit participants as early as possible, ideally as freshmen. Each semester incorporates some component of fieldwork in area schools with mentor teachers. This departs from the traditional education-school approach of delaying student teaching until much later. “It’s designed to be appealing; we’re opening doors for you,” says Tracy LaQuey Parker, director of the UTeach Institute, which was created to replicate the UT-Austin prototype. Freshmen can go through the curriculum in four years, but the program offers flexibility for those who join as upperclassmen, she says. “It’s not as easy, but we have a map for them to do it.”

Many UTeach participants say it was the combination of fieldwork and mentoring by master teachers that sold them on a teaching career. “I realized what I was really passionate about was working with students and actually being in the classroom” rather than the lab, says Michael Ralph, a biology major senior who enrolled in the program at the University of Kansas last year. He found more traditional approaches to teacher training to be “sort of a turnoff.” Without UTeach, “I can’t say I wouldn’t have done it, but it would have been a much more difficult decision.”

These graduates don’t lack job opportunities, although in many cases, they must settle for far lower salaries than they would earn in industry. Says LaQuey Parker, “We’ve had school districts call up and say, ‘How many do you have graduating? We’ll take all of them.'”

Some worry that Uteach and other so-called fast-track certification programs, such as Math for America, trim much-needed traditional pedagogy from their curricula. “One of the things that can be lost in the fast-tracking process is the enculturation that comes with wrestling with the complexity of teaching, learning, and schooling over time,” argues Kenneth Welty, an education professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. “Becoming a teacher involves building profound understandings and essential skills that are difficult to expedite because they require multiple exposures, incremental development, and thoughtful reflection.”

McDaniel College’s Fennell takes a more pragmatic view. “Half of the teachers of middle school math have neither a major or minor in math,” he notes. “If you say to me, ‘This person has a major in mathematics,’ I say, ‘Let’s talk.’ I want kids getting good footholds into a very important subject, and that means teachers need to understand it.”

Ambitious Expansion

In the next five years, NMSI hopes to have APTIP in 25 states, with a total of 2,000 high schools, and UTeach in as many as 50 universities. With its corporate and foundation support, NMSI is able to pay a significant proportion of the startup costs in each state, with the state paying the rest. NMSI money is gradually phased out, and after six years, the state is expected to shoulder the full cost.

Because industry stands to benefit from better-trained engineers and scientists — and more of them — it makes sense to Charles M. Vest, president of the National Academy of Engineering, for corporations to contribute to NMSI. “[Private industry] is highly dependent on technological development; it really is their lifeblood, so if we’re not able to provide employees to them, then they are going to be out of business,” says Vest, who is also an NMSI board member.

“This is the largest philanthropic commitment in our company’s history, which provides a sense of how important this issue is to us,” says Kenneth P. Cohen, vice president for public affairs at Exxon Mobil Corp.

Besides Exxon’s commitment of $125 million, NMSI has received $10 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and a pledge of $5 million from the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation. But with the nation currently in recession, NMSI’s ambitious expansion plans may stretch the limits of corporate philanthropy. The organization’s supporters hope the federal government will pick up some of the slack, and are encouraged by the pro-education rhetoric coming from the Obama administration. “I think our new president has made it very clear that he has a deep understanding of how key science and engineering is going to be to our economy,” says Vest. If fully funded, the 2007 America COMPETES Act could support further expansion of NMSI.

As he heads into the final months of his senior year of high school, Hintsa Hagos, for one, has set his sights on chemical or mechanical engineering. “I’ve known my whole life that I like math and science more than any other subjects,” Hagos says. “That’s why I picked engineering.” Getting that acceptance letter from his top pick, Boston University, may be a stretch, he admits. But, with AP Calculus under his belt, he feels he’s got a strong fighting chance.

Margaret Loftus is a freelance writer based in Charleston, S.C.

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