Not So Simple Math: Support for Silicon Valley K-8 Teachers in an Era of Budget Cuts

The Ten Commandments of Arithmetic: no place here for fuzzy math like you see in politics. (Credit: KQED/Rachael Myrow)

This November, California voters will be asked to weigh in on two ballot measures that affect education funding. Proposition 38 promises to raise money for K-12 schools with a broad-based income tax hike. Proposition 30, backed by Gov. Brown, would also raise taxes, but to a slightly different end: bolstering the state budget and avoiding massive education cuts.

Of course, lots and lots of funding has already been slashed. The distance between where we are and where we want to be in education is profoundly troubling to many voters in California – not just parents hoping to get their kids into a top university.

During Olympics season, the group StudentsFirst has generated a lot of buzz with a series of ads pointing up our nation’s less-than- competitive academic profile.

Whatever you think of the group and its leader Michelle Rhee (who garnered her national profile in Washington DC but is now living in Sacramento), it’s hard to ignore the feeling that there’s a great gulf between the amazing, explosive growth of Silicon Valley and the way we’re preparing our children to work in it — or not. To be fair, there have been impressive improvements in California in recent years, but there’s a lot more work to do by just about all accounts.

These are the kinds of questions the Silicon Valley Leadership Group spends a lot of time thinking about. The nonprofit hasn’t yet taken a position on either measure — those opinions are due out sometime in October. But Dennis Cima, VP of Education and Public Policy for the group, says funding is just one piece of the education conversation he’d like to see the state engaged in.

“We need to think more broadly about who we are and want to be in the next 20 years,” he says. “With the measures on the ballot, it comes down to this binary decision. Do we support the ballot measure or not? As opposed to really seeing the larger sustainability issues in education. Are we really putting in the inputs that we need to get the outputs that we want? My sense is no. We’re not.”

“The state of California could be and should be providing teacher professional development funding,” he says ruefully. “But it doesn’t.”

Math teacher Susan Tappero brims with genuine love for math. She helps elementary school teachers drop their fear of the subject and develop a sense of adventure instead. (Credit: KQED/Rachael Myrow)

The Silicon Valley Leadership Group, however, does. Last month in San Jose, I visited a teachers’ math clinic that the organization provides. The instructor, Susan Tappero, teaches math at Cabrillo College in Aptos during the school year. In the summer, she helps elementary school teachers brush up — and expand — their skills in the subject.

“It’s beyond most of what these teachers will ever teach their own students,” she said with a mischievous grin, referring to the mathematical concept of inverse functions — which she was challenging her teacher-students to tackle. “But it builds lots of math structure – and encourages discovery and exploration.”

Tappero hopes these teachers will bring a new flush of enthusiasm to their classrooms when they return in the fall. What she doesn’t say is that a fair number at the clinic were English and poli-sci majors in college. They can teach elementary level math, just not particularly well.

She says her classroom is a safe place to play catch-up. “They grow their math power and they just feel differently about tackling a math problem that’s hard. They look at it as more of an adventure rather than something to avoid.”

The clinic is in its fifth year, and while most seats are reserved for teachers from low-performing schools in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, classes are also open to people who really do excel at numbers.

Take Heidi Shimamoto, who’s been teaching sixth graders for 11 years, mostly in math. Shimamoto struggles to understand why some students don’t get basic concepts. And she comes across kids who’ve simply memorized the right answers, which is an approach she says works until it doesn’t. “They get so confused, but when they understand the underpinnings, which is what we’re doing, the foundations of math, then it’s so much easier. It makes so much more sense.”

California public schools – like schools all across the country – will soon be implementing new academic standards, called Common Core Standards. The stated hope is that all students will be encouraged to develop “adaptive reasoning,” “strategic competence” and “conceptual understanding” in math and science. But it’s one thing to tell teachers that’s what the state wants, and another entirely to help them deliver on the promise.

We need to think more broadly about who we are and want to be in the next 20 years. – Dennis Cima

The program costs $3,000-3,500 per teacher, including 80 hours of instruction plus optional follow-up to help teachers analyze their students’ work. Cima says this was not a hard sell to corporate funder Intel, or for education officials at the county level.

It’s part of Cima’s job description to lobby for math and science education in Sacramento. He says every politician, Republican and Democrat alike, nods sagely when reminded that Silicon Valley’s future is tied to math and science education. But in an era of budget cuts, funding for schools is getting slashed. Rich communities can compensate somewhat at the state level. Poor communities? Not so much.

But Cima, a poli-sci major himself, acknowledges that in politics, things don’t always progress in a linear fashion – the way they do in math.

“We could sit back and wait for that money to come,” he says. “Or we could be innovative, work with partners like Intel, work with educators, work with schools, and create something here that can be replicated anywhere.”