UNL leads $5.5M effort to improve math education in Omaha

UNL's Jim Lewis talks during the July 15 $5.5 million grant announcement in Omaha. (Greg Nathan, University Communications)
UNL's Jim Lewis talks during the July 15 $5.5 million grant announcement in Omaha. (Greg Nathan, University Communications)

Helping students improve their math skills by investing in outstanding math teachers is behind the logic of a $5.5 million grant made by two Omaha foundations.

The Sherwood Foundation and the Lozier Foundation have partnered to provide the grant to the University of Nebraska Foundation to support a three-year partnership between Omaha Public Schools and UNL's Center for Science, Mathematics and Computer Education.

The funding supports the newly formed NebraskaMATH Omaha Public Schools Teacher Leader Academy, which involves a community of OPS mathematics teachers from grades K-12 dedicated to strengthening mathematics teaching and learning in Omaha. Through the program, teachers will have access to continuing education and graduate coursework centered on math education.

The project plans to reach more than 250 teachers over three years. The first group of teachers began graduate coursework this month.

"Our faculty's strength in mathematics research, coupled with an innovative partnership with Omaha Public Schools and local foundations, will benefit thousands of Nebraska students," Chancellor Harvey Perlman said.

Jim Lewis, UNL mathematics professor and director of the Center for Science, Mathematics and Computer Education, said the goals of the OPS initiative are to strengthen mathematics learning in Omaha classrooms, narrow student achievement gaps between different populations and conduct research that continues to inform school improvement efforts.

"This dramatic investment in Omaha's mathematics teachers will impact student learning throughout the district, both in the short and long term," Lewis said. "We are extremely grateful to both the Sherwood Foundation and the Lozier Foundation for their support in helping to form the NebraskaMATH Omaha Public Schools Teacher Leader Academy."

Dianne Lozier, trustee of the Lozier Foundation, said: "The Lozier Foundation cares passionately about the elimination of the academic achievement gap for many in the Omaha area, especially in regard to
reading and math. Thus, we are pleased to be a partner in furthering NebraskaMATH so that accountable and effective systems and methods can be implemented for the benefit of all students within the OPS system."

The academy will offer various programs for teachers, including Primarily Math, a program for K-3 teachers; Math in the Middle, a master's degree program for grades 4-8 teachers; and fellowships for K-12 math teachers to take courses at no cost. The grant also supports six K-3 and two middle-grade math coaches for OPS.

Throughout the project, university faculty will study the impact of professional development on teachers' beliefs and knowledge, student outcomes and the impact school culture has on student achievement. They will also establish a studio classroom as a model for implementing instructional change in K-3 classrooms.

NebraskaMATH was started in 2009 by the university with funding from the National Science Foundation. It researches the premise that enhancing a teacher's own math education skills is critical to significantly improving student mathematics achievement. NebraskaMATH partners with public school districts in Grand Island, Lincoln, Papillion-La Vista and Omaha, as well as state Educational Service Units.

"The NebraskaMATH team has a proven record of providing robust content-based professional development for teachers and the research that studies teacher knowledge and student learning," Lewis said.

This project and its research results will provide a national model for effective mathematics teacher education, he said. The OPS Teacher Leader Academy builds on the university's NSF-funded teacher education initiatives, including Math in the Middle, NebraskaMATH and NebraskaNOYCE. Nearly 75 OPS teachers have participated in those programs, forming a base of teacher leaders for the new program.

Instructional teams for the courses will include a mix of OPS master teachers and faculty from UNL, the University of Nebraska at Omaha and other area colleges. Collaborating with Lewis on development of the OPS partnership are co-principal investigators Ruth Heaton, professor in the UNL College of Education and Human Sciences, and Wendy Smith, research assistant professor in the UNL College of Arts and Sciences.

UNO mathematics education faculty members are also supporting the UNL-led initiative and are providing some of the Omaha-area instruction. Angie Hodge, Janice Rech and Michael Matthews will continue NebraskaMATH collaborative efforts with Lewis.

More information about the Teacher Leader Academy, including program applications for teachers, is available at http://scimath.unl.edu/opstla.

— Robb Crouch, University of Nebraska Foundation