Scaling Up: The Dana Center Turns 15

Posted on May 15, 2008

Dana Center staff and guests gathered at the UT Club on Wednesday, April 23 for the annual convocation to celebrate the past year’s accomplishments and the Dana Center’s 15th year of operation. Two staff members,
Mary Ellen Isaacs
and Sam Zigrossi, were recognized for ten years of service to the Dana Center.

In his opening remarks, Dana Center Executive Director Uri Treisman noted that he never would have imagined, as the Center was getting started in the early 1990s, the acceleration in math expectations that has taken place in the last 10–15 years. He lauded the state of Texas for its tremendous commitment to moving education forward and pointed out that, ironically, the negative stereotypes about Texas and Texans have actually had a beneficial effect: Other states have been inspired to improve their education systems—because if a state like Texas can do it, surely they can, too.

The invited speaker, Mary Ann Rankin, Dean of the College of Natural Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin, took up the theme of Texas’s influence on public education nationwide in her talk, “STEM Initiatives from a National and State Perspective: Implications for Education and the Workforce.”

Dean Rankin began by talking about the National Academies’ influential 2005 report, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, which focused on the United States' shortcomings in global competitiveness and how to improve them. One of the report’s primary recommendations was to improve science, math, technology, and engineering (STEM) education across all grade levels.

The report cited two local, Texas-based programs—Advanced Placement Strategies (APS) and UTeach—as successfully meeting the STEM challenge, and recommended them for national replication. In 2006, the National Math and Science Initiative was launched to do just that.

NMSI is a public–private partnership dedicated to scaling up to a national level successful local math and science programs, with the goal of addressing the needs of all 50 million American public school students.

The first two programs NMSI chose to scale up were APS and UTeach. The goal of APS is to have more students take and pass AP exams, because evidence suggests a correlation between passing AP exams and graduating from college; the success of students at the ten Dallas schools in which APS originated bears out this correlation. NMSI has already expanded APS to seven states and UTeach to three additional sites in Texas and to ten sites in eight other states.

UTeach directly addresses one of the Gathering Storm report’s primary conclusions: The U.S. needs more qualified math and science teachers. Designed to coax undergraduate math and science majors to give teaching a try, UTeach was established at UT Austin in 1997 and, according to the program's statistics, now certifies over 70 math and science students a year. About half of these graduates teach in schools that serve primarily low-income students.

UTeach has proved beneficial both to the undergraduates who participate in it and to public education: UTeach participants have a better retention rate in the College of Natural Sciences than do other students, and UTeach alums remain in the profession longer than the national average, with around 70% of UTeach graduates still teaching after five years.

UTeach’s statistics tell one story, but the most compelling evidence of the program’s effectiveness came when Dean Rankin showed a video clip of young UTeach alums talking about their profession at the program’s ten-year anniversary celebration. These teachers spoke so compellingly and enthusiastically, demonstrating such a profound commitment to what they were doing and such incredibly creative approaches to doing it, that quite a few Dana Center staff members expressed the desire to go back to high school to take a class or two from them.

Dean Rankin’s commitment to UTeach was apparent in her detailed knowledge of the program and her obvious enthusiasm for it. She credited Director Treisman for helping to guide the formation of UTeach and declared that “this work is very, very important—maybe the most important thing we’re doing.” Dean Rankin went on to say how much she appreciates “all that Uri [Treisman] has done for us and for the state and for the country” to improve public education, and she recognized that Dana Center staff “have been a great part of that.”

Dr. Treisman concluded the convocation by pointing out that the Dana Center is the largest organized research unit in the College of Natural Sciences and that it is truly impressive that College devotes so many of its resources to ensuring equity and access in public education to students in Texas and beyond.