To improve math education, professor starts with teacher prep

October 5, 2018

Backed by major grants, Yasemin Copur-Gencturk envisions better approaches to how math teachers learn

By Ross Brenneman

Assistant Professor of Education Yasemin Copur-Gencturk teaches how to teach fractions at a class at USC Center. Copur-Gencturk has received nearly $5 million in federal grants to improve how math teachers learn. (Photo/Ross Brenneman)

Four children want to split three cookies equally.

That sounds like the start to a math problem because it is the start to a math problem. In a classroom at USC Center in downtown Los Angeles, Yasemin Copur-Gencturk, an assistant professor of education at USC Rossier, is challenging the students in her Master of Arts in Teaching class to think about fraction problems not in terms of their answer, but in terms of how a child would answer.

The ways that math teachers learn to teach math lie at the heart of Copur-Gencturk’s research, and with so much national focus on math—not only as a key component of STEM initiatives, but as a core aspect of most national and international testing—Copur-Gencturk’s work holds serious potential.

The National Science Foundation certainly thinks so: Since April 2018, the NSF has awarded Copur-Gencturk more than $3 million in grant money to study teacher learning, including a $2.1 million grant in June and a highly competitive NSF CAREER Award in March. The federal Institute of Education Sciences added a $1.4 million grant this summer as well to study how middle school teachers learn proportional reasoning, bringing her grant total to more than $4.5 million.

“Access to quality teaching is a matter of equity, and we know from existing research that less privileged students are less likely to be taught by well-prepared teachers,” Copur-Gencturk says.

Better learning opportunities

The most recent round of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, administered in 2017, showed that despite significant progress over the past quarter century, scores for 4th and 8th graders were flat relative to the test’s previous iteration in 2015.

The NAEP results set off a wave of discussion about needed action. Concurrent research suggested focusing on the ability of math teachers, echoing previous studies that show teachers—moreso than factors like peers or curriculum—are the most important in-school factor for student achievement.

Copur-Gencturk’s grant-funded projects aim to understand how higher education programs can better prepare teachers; how they can more accurately identify effective learning opportunities; and how they can reach out to teachers across the country who need professional support.

The projects follow on research Copur-Gencturk published in March 2018 showing that one of the most common assessments of math teaching doesn’t necessarily even capture all the key components of what makes math teaching successful.

“Even if you create good professional development, if you don’t have an assessment to capture the key aspects of the knowledge needed in teaching, then you cannot identify whether your PD is working or not,” she says.

The NSF grant aims to develop instruments that capture important aspects of the professional knowledge and skills that teachers need in high-quality teaching. The IES grant aims to address the scalability issues that arise when creating meaningful and useful learning opportunities for teachers across the country.

“Identifying how teachers learn will allow us to create more effective learning opportunities for our teachers,” Copur-Gencturk says. “In turn, we can address the inequity in our educational system more effectively.”

Related Stories: