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Education professor receives grant to help elementary school teachers strengthen their math knowledge

September 10, 2015

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Algebra in kindergarten? You’ve got to be kidding.

But no, Dr. Joanna B. Stegall is completely serious, and through algebra, she’s helping elementary-age children fare better throughout their school years, even through college.

“The lack of students’ proficiency in algebra is a problem at a national level,” said Dr. Stegall, associate dean of the College of Education. “The lack of understanding in elementary school leads to lack of understanding in high school. If kids can’t pass algebra, they can’t get a high school diploma, and it’s almost impossible to go on to college. The lack of success can have detrimental effects on their future.”

To combat the problem, Dr. Stegall recently secured nearly $120,000 in funding from the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 Improving Teacher Quality; Higher Education Grant Program for South Carolina. Her grant, titled Elementary Teacher Training in Algebra, is a collaborative effort between the College and Education, College of Arts and Sciences, and Anderson County School District Five. It will get to the root of the issue by helping the teachers become more comfortable with algebraic concepts and therefore better able to educate their students.

“If students start with basic algebra as kindergartners, they understand the prerequisite skills by the time they get to Algebra 1,” said Dr. Stegall, a former math teacher of 25 years and primary investigator for the grant.

Dr. Stegall’s research focuses on learning disabilities, particularly in mathematics, and she has discovered that teachers who are uncomfortable with their own math skills often choose to work as elementary school educators because they can focus more on students’ reading skills. As children continue through school, they tend to learn mathematical procedures, rather than concepts. For example, they memorize multiplication tables rather than understanding conceptually what’s happening when they multiply numbers. Dr. Stegall said this experience makes success more difficult when students encounter more advanced algebraic concepts in high school.

The grant funding allows 29 teachers in Anderson County School District Five—where Anderson University is located—to train with Dr. Stegall and her colleagues Dr. Gilbert Eyabi, associate professor of mathematics who assisted with the grant, and Sherri Kennedy, master teacher. The training included a weeklong 2015 summer session, six monthly meetings during the school year, and another week-long session next summer.

The teachers won’t be learning how to teach algebra. Instead, they’ll be learning how to do algebra for themselves, building their own confidence, which Dr. Stegall says will result in a better ability to pass on the understanding to their students.

“Over course of a career, if a teacher works for 25 years and has 25 students per year, that’s huge. It really matters,” Dr. Stegall said. “Then after kindergarten, there’s first grade. We need the first grade teacher to love algebra too. If students have two teachers in a row who are weak, they’ll likely never catch up. It’s really high stakes.”

It’s true, even beyond school years. South Carolina has lost contracts for new industries to come into the state because there weren’t enough workers who had the necessary skills to fill all the jobs.

This opportunity represents the first time Anderson University has been awarded the Improving Teacher Quality Higher Education Grant. Dr. Stegall said she realized how much elementary educators need this type of training when 84 teachers signed up. Funding limited the pool to 29 participants, who represent 11 of the schools in the district, and Dr. Stegall hopes there will be more opportunities for similar training in the future.

“The large number of teachers seeking the training shows that they want to do a good job,” she said. “They love their students and want to do their very best for them.”

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