During his 45 years at VCU, mathematics professor Dr. Reuben W. Farley has been awarded the VCU Distinguished Teaching Award, The State Council For Higher Education in Virginia Outstanding Faculty Award and The Council For Advancement Of Science Education Virginia Professor Of The Year Award. He has served as Chair of the Department of Mathematics and Applied Mathematics, and developed the Math Specialist program and a master’s degree to train these coaches along with colleagues Bill Haver, Aimee Ellington Joy Whitenack and Dewey Taylor.

“Suppose I were an elementary teacher, and I were asked to teach art or music. I’d be lost! I’m totally illiterate in art and music. So what about elementary teachers who are illiterate in mathematics?”

The concept for how to reach those teachers evolved through the Virginia Math and Science Coalition (of which Dr. Farley is a founding member). The program trains future math coaches with subject matter they will later pass along to their students: numbers and operations, rational numbers, statistics, geometry – not abstract algebra, and calculus – but subject matter they are really going to use.

“[The children] learn from the bottom up,” said Dr. Farley. “Why the heck do you invert, and multiply, and divide?’ Or ‘what does subtraction mean?”

VCU led the way in developing the program in coordination with the University of Virginia, Norfolk State University, Longwood University and George Mason University. The math specialist program has been in development since 1990.

The National Science Foundation has issued primary grants to VCU exceeding $20 million to be used in the mathematics programs. “And together Bill Haver and I have another $10 million so we’re over 30 million dollars in grant funding, and 20 million of it has [already] gone to support these training and implementation programs of math coaches.”

In a study conducted by a researcher from the University of Maryland to measure the effectiveness of the mathematics programs, schools of similar demographics were compared. “Test scores rose 20 to 30 points on some of these tests,” when compared to the schools which received no math coaching. Farley says the results are usually even greater after the coaches have been in their respective schools for a year (according to the Maryland study).

“They’re matched pairs. They’re not one rural school, compared to one urban school. So it’s a real scientific study; one of the few, nationally, that’s been produced on the effects of math specialists. In fact, we think we’re number one in the nation on progress toward math specialists, but there are some 30 states or so that have some development in that area.”

Dr. Farley said there is now a program to also put math specialists in middle schools in the same fashion. In 2008, during the worst economic months, schools as far out as Southwest Virginia were interested in getting math coaches into the classroom, and they were eventually able to do that. “The current challenge is to ensure reliable sources of funding for the program.”

*Written by James Galloway*