Making Math Matter
By Robert Schroeder
For years, pundits, politicians and pollsters have lamented America's seeming decline in science and math education. Now, a National Louis University professor is attempting to address the problem at its starting point.
On April 7, 2011, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange Foundation announced a grant award of $456,000 through 2013 to fund the development and implementation of a program called Math Access for Teachers and Home Care Providers (MATH), an online professional development center designed to enrich and improve the math methods skills of home care providers to assist children in math literacy. The program is the first of its kind in the United States.
"This is the foundation for everything children are going to learn after [entering school]," said Kathleen Sheridan, Ph.D., associate professor in the National College of Education and the program's founder. "You look at the knowledge and foundation they have about things like sequencing, patterning and numeracy, and if they don't have that in their foundation, then everything else built upon is going to be weak."
That foundation begins at the floor—literally. The project's first component directs care providers on setting up an effective math learning environment, including the placement of posters and signs low enough for young children to interpret, and in the case of infants, virtually resting on the floor. The project provides objects and manipulatives for children to touch and hold, fostering an environment of learning by doing best suited for youngsters.
The second component focuses on instructing care providers on best practices for designing their own math activities and lessons for children from birth through age five, and the final component reinforces the care providers' own knowledge base with the foundational skills they will be teaching to the children in their care.
"What Kathleen proposed was to create professional development for home-based care providers, and that is a segment of the population that deals with young children we weren't serving," said Kassie Davis, executive director of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange Foundation. "Because it represented such a large segment of children who are in family-based child care, we thought that was a particular segment National Louis was pretty uniquely able to address."
In Illinois alone, there are more than 11,000 licensed child care homes, a figure which does not include educators in licensed-exempt homes and providers operating without government knowledge. The scope is significant, but the audience affected is of even greater value.
"The idea of reaching people who we ordinarily wouldn't be able to reach is really exciting to me," Sheridan said. "A lot of these people don't have the money, or they are too far away, or they are at centers taking care of kids and for them to leave their centers is virtually impossible."
The program's virtual activities come packaged in 10-20 minute modules, about the maximum free time most care providers have in their work day. The modules build caregivers' capacity to teach lessons on numbers and number sense, spatial concepts like space and measurement, patterns and relationships, sequencing and temporal awareness, and problem solving skills.
The program's evolution will be rapid, thanks to the inclusion of new technologies. As care providers complete each module, they will provide instant feedback on the success of the modules by answering a rating question generated by the program. Disposable video cameras will be sent to caregivers for the project team to evaluate the effectiveness of both the modules and the resulting lessons, and a community blog will offer a forum for caregivers to interact, troubleshoot and share best practices.
Currently, Sheridan is assembling her team of instructional designers, graphic designers, content experts, assessment experts and colleagues from other universities. As the project rolls out, the team will work with regional directors whom oversee home care providers to identify early adopters and grow the program. With its heavy online presence, Sheridan envisions the program reaching national and international status.
"We were at the forefront of the kindergarten movement and early childhood education, so for us to be doing this fits right in with our mission and history," Sheridan said. "We've always been cutting edge and forward thinking, and I think this is just an extension of that."