Millar: Improving education in math and science

Terry Millar:

Improvement in math and science education is a priority in Madison, as it is across the nation.
Science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) training is not only of growing importance to our technology-dependent society, these disciplines also represent esthetically compelling advances in human knowledge that all students should have the opportunity to appreciate.
Since 2003, UW Madison and the Madison School District have been involved in a unique partnership, funded by the National Science Foundation, to reform science and math education from kindergarten through graduate school.
Preliminary results are encouraging. This five-year endeavor, SCALE — System-wide Change for All Learners and Educators — has partners that include three universities and large school districts in Madison, Los Angeles, Denver and Providence, R.I. The NSF made exploring new forms of partnership its key feature.
Improving STEM education has proven resistant to traditional “you do your thing, I ‘ll do mine ” approaches. SCALE ‘s successes underscore the wisdom of NSF ‘s emphasis on partnership.
SCALE incorporates research on student learning and teacher professional development. SCALE puts premiums on increasing teachers ‘ STEM subject matter knowledge and boosting their teaching skills.
In one preliminary study, teachers showed a significant increase in content knowledge after attending SCALE science professional development institutes in Los Angeles.
SCALE partners believe the most important resource in a school is its teachers, an idea that has not always been central to reform. However, the final measure of effectiveness is increased student understanding and performance. In 2009-2010, a randomized study involving 80 elementary schools in Los Angeles will provide definitive data on SCALE ‘s impact on student performance in science.


In Madison, SCALE teams of district math teachers and UW-Madison faculty have designed and provided content and in-service teacher professional development institutes. Each institute focused on a set of key concepts in middle school mathematics.
During 2004-06, these teams presented 19 workshops involving about 425 attendees. Teachers showed significant gains in math content knowledge, allowing them to create better learning environments in their classrooms, and UW faculty benefited from these experiences. Due to the success of this program, it has been adapted and extended to elementary mathematics and middle school science.
We also must attend to the preparation of future teachers at our universities, and to the “gateway ” courses, such as calculus, for students aspiring to STEM-related occupations.
SCALE has been supporting partnerships to explore improvements in these areas at our three universities. For example, SCALE is helping cross institutional and cross-disciplinary committees in the redesign of UW math and science teacher content courses at the elementary and middle school level.
The primary SCALE lesson is the importance of meaningful, imaginative partnerships. To quote Benjamin Franklin: We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.
Millar is a mathematics professor and associated dean of the graduate school at UW-Madison.

6 thoughts on “Millar: Improving education in math and science”

  1. Any guesses what Terry means by ‘ATTENDING to gateway courses such as calculus’? My guess is it means calculus reform, that is, calculus taught CMP style.

  2. Actually it was Finland, not Sweden. The Swedes are tearing their hair out right now about their own poor results on the test. Finns give a variety of reasons for their consistently high performance on these tests. Most say the primary reasons are the high status of teachers in their culture, and the relative freedom teachers have to teach as they please within the strictures of the National Core Curriculum.
    Some links:
    National Core Curriculum:,27598,37840,72101,72106
    Ministry of Education:
    OECD/Schooling for Tomorrow:
    Virtual Finland:
    A Finnish Educator’s View:
    Helsinki Sanomat (newspaper):
    The Finnish education system is very refreshing. For one thing, as you can read in some of these links, kids get 15 minutes of outdoor recess after each class. My husband told me his memories of this from his childhood, but I thought that was probably no longer true. Also, it seems that as my husband always told, school really lets out for the day about 1:30 in the afternoon.
    If you look into any of these links, you’ll see that some years ago the education system was reformed to be more equitable, with comprehensive public school available to all from age 7-16, heterogeneous classes, etc. However, at age 16, students choose regular high school or vocational training, about 55/45. The high schools choose their own students based on grades in comprehensive school and entrance exams. Some high schools are much more desirable than others. So there is a real motivator to do well early on, as the local high school doesn’t have to accept you just because you live nearby. And which high school you attend has a huge impact on your prospects beyond high school.
    There would be a lot more to say if people were interested in this topic.

  3. I would be very interested in hearing more about this, Celeste. With the increasing push for one-size-fits-all education (heterogenous vs skill grouping), some have cited an article on Finnish education (see below) as justification. But can the data really be generalized? For example the Finnish population is quite homogenous compared to our own. They also have much less severe poverty. They have a very different state of social welfare. And even given those aspects that make so-called heterogeneous classrooms more doable, are they able to address the highest educational needs of Finnlands future inventors, doctors, researchers, and law makers?
    Below is the article that I mentioned. What do you think?
    The Secret to Smarter Schools
    By Lisa Moore
    Posted 3/18/07
    If Americans want better schools and smarter students, they should think F-for Finland.
    Finnish 15-year-olds score at or near the top in reading, math, and science in the prestigious Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, offered every three years by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In 2003 (2006 results aren’t yet available), Finland ranked first among 40 industrialized nations in reading literacy, first (with Japan) in science, and second in math. The United States ranked 18th, 22nd, and 28th in those subjects, respectively. Finland also boasts the smallest gap between its best and weakest students, and the second-smallest difference among individual schools’ performances.
    In the early 1970s, Finland scrapped its old education system, which steered students into either vocational or academic tracks at the end of fourth grade. In its place, Finland developed a system of “comprehensive” schooling-free public education for all children from grades 1 through 9 that combines students of all academic abilities and socioeconomic backgrounds in the same rooms. This heterogeneous approach focuses on equity for all.
    Training teachers. Students start primary school during the year they turn 7, with free preschool as an option before that. Classes are relatively small, averaging 20 to 25 students. Schools have enormous flexibility at the local level in choosing textbooks, designing curricula, and allocating funds. Free school lunches, textbooks, healthcare, and transportation for students offer them holistic support in their learning process. In 1998, a new law gave parents more freedom to select schools for their children. And most students with learning disabilities are integrated into mainstream classrooms and still receive intensive support through special education. (Almost 20 percent of Finnish students get such help, compared with an average of about 6 percent internationally.)
    Perhaps the most potent secret weapon in Finland’s success is well-trained teachers. In 1970, as the country began to overhaul its system, it mandated that teachers for all grades must obtain at least a master’s degree. Today, teacher-education programs at universities are highly competitive, in part because teachers enjoy high prestige in Finnish society. “The status of teachers is comparable to doctors and lawyers,” says Jouni Valijarvi, director of the Institute for Educational Research at the University of Jyvaskyla.
    So what can the United States learn from Finland’s success? “‘No Child Left Behind’ should be reality on all levels of the society, not only a slogan,” says Valijarvi. “This means big investments in teacher education, special education, and supporting children and families at an early age. The return can be high.”
    That idea deserves an A.

  4. Terry, Wouldn’t it be more cost effective and better for the students if we hired math- and science-certified teachers with B.S. or M.S. degrees in these fields to teach math and science, respectively, in our middle schools rather than trying to train K-8 elementary education teachers with minimal background in math and science to teach these courses? We don’t have our elementary ed teachers teaching PE, music, and shop in middle school. Why do we have them teaching math and science if they didn’t major in these fields in college?

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