Pittsburgh Public Schools are to benefit from a nearly $8 million grant from the National Science Foundation to help increase student access to high-level math courses and help more students think like mathematicians.
The five-year competitive grant was made to the Education Development Center, a nonprofit in Massachusetts, which is partnering with Pittsburgh Public Schools, Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh and Duquesne University.
The school board is expected to review tonight and vote next Wednesday on accepting nearly $3.4 million of the NSF Math and Science Partnership Award. That money would go directly to the district, but the remainder of the grant to the Education Development Center also would be used by various partners to help the district's students and teachers.
The grant would impact about 13,000 students -- all of the district's students in grades 6-12.
The grant comes after two other Math and Science Partnership Awards, those made through the U.S. Department of Education, since 2010. The first was for about $760,000 and the second for about $1.3 million.
All three grants focus on math instruction, which is undergoing changes as the new Common Core State Standards -- which the state is calling the Pennsylvania Core Standards -- are put into effect. The Common Core standards, written by governors and state education officials in both parties, were designed to create consistent math and reading standards from kindergarten through 12th grade.
Pittsburgh Public Schools is revising its math courses to help students develop a deeper understanding of mathematical thinking.
Some of the district's early work in Algebra 1 may be paying off, said Jerri Lynn Lippert, district chief academic officer. On the state Keystone Exams in Algebra 1 in 2012-13, high school juniors scored better than they did on the old Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests, even though the opposite result was expected.
One of the issues to be addressed with the latest grant is the "opportunity gap" in which some students have access to high-level math courses and other students do not. The grant also will include research on the causes of the gap.
Eden Badertscher, senior project director at the Education Development Center, said the focus on the opportunity gap is not just for students who are readily able to engage in mathematical thinking but also for "students who are really capable but have been marginalized over time because of how the system has worked against them."
Charles Munter, assistant professor of math education at Pitt, said some students are regarded as not ready to learn at a rigorous level and are never given the chance to be involved in math in a deep or meaningful way.
"We think a lot of the challenges lie in the system. We're interested in how the system works for or against teachers or kids. This question extends well beyond the Pittsburgh Public Schools," Mr. Munter said.
Al Cuoco, distinguished scholar at the Education Development Center, said common folklore claims that students who struggle in algebra have weak arithmetic skills. But he said there are students who have strong arithmetic skills and still hit a brick wall when they get to algebra because they have difficult with concepts and abstracting information from numerical calculations.
He said math often focuses on the end product, but students need to understand the theory, make abstractions and develop mathematical habits of the mind.
Ms. Lippert said she expects the latest grant will help increase the percentage of minority students and economically disadvantaged students who have more access to high-level math courses and do better on tests, including Advanced Placement and college entrance exams.
University and school district educators will work together, both during the school year and the summer, so they each can learn from one another and develop a mathematical community.
"The basic tenet of these partnerships is to create institutional change at each of the institutions, not just public schools but the universities as well so there can be more collaboration between practicing mathematicians and practicing teachers," Mr. Cuoco said.
Education writer Eleanor Chute: email@example.com or 412-263-1955. First Published October 15, 2013 8:00 PM