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Math Education Researchers in Demand


When Ann Ryu Edwards entered the job market in 2006, she knew she could be picky. Many newly minted academics send dozens of applications with the hope of getting just one position, but Edwards's field, mathematics education, isn't like that. In fact, she applied to just four universities and got four interviews. Two--including the University of Maryland, College Park, where she is now an assistant professor--offered her a job.

Outside of universities, a Ph.D. is not always necessary.

The academic job market in mathematics education has been on fire for years, thanks in part to high retirement rates, says Robert Reys, a mathematics educator at the University of Missouri, Columbia. According to his 2008 report in Notices of the American Mathematical Society, universities advertised 128 math-education positions in the fall of 2007, nearly all tenure-track. About 40% went unfilled, often for lack of qualified candidates. Mathematics-education researchers also find an open, dynamic job market outside of universities--in government, nonprofits, and commercial outfits.


Mathematics-education research demands a rare combination of interests and skills, says Alan Schoenfeld, a mathematics education researcher at the University of California, Berkeley. Mathematics is important, of course; but math-education researchers also use social-science tools to study teacher behavior, student reasoning, educational equity, technology, and other topics. "A lot people who are brought up in the mathematics and the sciences tend to think the social stuff is soft and therefore not as intellectually interesting or rigorous," says Schoenfeld, who holds a Ph.D. in mathematics. But "math ed., properly done, is actually more challenging than mathematics, and that's because simple systems sit still and people don't."

"What we want in the long run is someone who blends two important things," Schoenfeld says. "One is a deep understanding of the mathematics, and a second is a deep understanding of thinking and learning."

Two academic homes

That deep understanding can come in part from years of teaching experience. Dana Cox, 33, was a mathematics major at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, and then taught mathematics in Michigan for 7 years, primarily to seventh-graders, often collaborating with local university researchers.

In 2004, the brand-new Center for the Study of Mathematics Curriculum--one of several National Science Foundation–funded Centers for Teaching and Learning--invited her to apply as a doctoral student. It was a difficult decision, because she had to give up her comfortable salary, tenure, and some retirement investments. Many teachers are unable to make that sacrifice, she says, which is one possible reason for the dearth of math-education Ph.D.s.

She accepted the offer, ultimately earning a doctorate in mathematics education--with the equivalent of a master's degree in mathematics--from Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, one of the center's three collaborating universities. For her dissertation, she interviewed middle-school students as they solved geometry problems, in order to learn how teachers can build on children's intuitive understanding.

Upon graduating, Cox had the option of applying for positions in mathematics or education departments. Reys's study shows that math-education positions are almost evenly split between them--but mathematics-department positions often require advanced mathematics training, which Cox had. She also felt that "a culture of mathematics fit my personality better." She interviewed for two mathematics-department positions, was offered both, and chose Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. "I just knew that this was home," she says.

(Rachael Kenney)
Jill Newton

Cox says there can be cultural differences between mathematics-education researchers and their research mathematician colleagues. For example, mathematicians are expected to publish their best research alone and at a young age, whereas mathematics-education researchers tend to collaborate and get better with time. This can become a problem in tenure reviews, but so far, Cox says, she's not worried. "Right now, all I can really focus on is making sure that I'm doing the best job in my field. And later on, I'll work on making the case to other people outside my field."

Jill Newton was Cox's graduate classmate at the Center for the Study of Mathematics Curriculum. She also looked for jobs last year. Unlike Cox, she had not studied graduate-level mathematics, and she preferred to teach education courses, so she applied to education departments.

A mathematics major at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Newton started her career by teaching mathematics and science in Papua New Guinea in the Peace Corps. She followed that with a master's degree in international education from George Washington University in Washington, D.C., graduating in 1995, and then spent the next several years teaching mathematics and science abroad and in the United States.

By 2004, when she decided to move closer to her aging parents, Newton was ready for a change, and someone suggested that she consider mathematics-education research. "I never even imagined that you could get a Ph.D. in mathematics education," she says. "It sounded perfect." She returned to Michigan State University, another of the center's three collaborating institutions. For her dissertation, she focused on curriculum research: analyzing textbooks and observing how curricula play out in classrooms. Ultimately, she accepted a position at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, which allows her to do top-level research, teach, and remain close to her parents.

Both Cox and Newton say that their work keeps them close to schools--for example, doing research in classrooms or running professional-development workshops for teachers. And although research can seem abstract compared with the practical work of teaching, Schoenfeld says the theoretical foundations that academics lay eventually make it into classrooms and curricula. "The ideas of the basic research of the 1970s and '80s played out in the curricula in the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century," he says.

"Tremendous freedom"

(Kendra Lockman Photography)
Daniel Scher

Some say one way to make that happen faster is to work in the private sector. Outside of universities, mathematics-education researchers do work that runs the gamut from research to policy, textbook writing, and product design. Daniel Scher, 41, a curriculum developer at KCP Technologies, says working in the private sector allows him to "put research into practice in a very tangible way." A mathematics major with an English minor at the University of Pennsylvania, he found that mathematics education combined his interests. While completing his master's at Cornell University, which he finished in 1993, he discovered a paper by a researcher at the Education Development Center, an independent nonprofit institute in Newton, Massachusetts. "It seemed like a really neat place to work," he says. In 1995, he got hired there to develop curricula.

Soon, he decided he would need a doctorate if he wanted to advance to a leadership position. He went to New York University in New York City, where he researched the effectiveness of The Geometer's Sketchpad software, which helps students of all ages learn mathematics. After getting his degree in 2002, he worked for a private, three-person research group that brought Russian mathematics curricula to the United States. Funded by a small group of investors, "it had all the excitement of a small start-up," he says. In 2004, he signed on with KCP Technologies, the developer of The Geometer's Sketchpad, where his work involves writing grant applications and curricula, as well as "everything from doing professional development, to writing journal articles, to thinking about updates to Sketchpad, to dealing with the Board of Education in New York," he says. Although KCP Technologies is in Emeryville, California, Scher works remotely from New York City.

(Courtesy, Teresa Lara-Meloy )
Teresa Lara-Meloy

Outside of universities, a Ph.D. is not always necessary. Teresa Lara-Meloy, 36, was a good mathematics student growing up in Tehuacán, Mexico, but she never considered a career in mathematics. She went to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., as an undergraduate to study international affairs. After graduating, she taught Spanish-speaking adults at a nonprofit in her free time. "Nobody wanted to teach mathematics or science," she says, "so I ended up doing it and realized there was a dearth of resources" for Spanish speakers. She soon came to see mathematics as a human right, one that many people are denied. "Calculus is this all-powerful tool to think with," she says, "and most people don't get that ... because the system doesn't help them."

She decided to go to Harvard University to get a master's degree in mathematics education and graduated in 2000. "I don't think I got mathematics until I got to graduate school," she says. She then took a position at TERC, an education-research organization in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There, she collaborated with teachers and students to help create better mathematics-teaching practices and tools. It "was an ideal world," she says. "That's when I realized that I could pursue a career" in research outside of universities.

After her project at TERC ended, she taught and researched in Mexico for 2 years before moving back to Massachusetts to the Education Development Center, where she did research on using technology in education. In early 2007, she started at SRI International, a nonprofit research institute in Menlo Park, California, where she works on projects that include a mathematics curriculum for Girls Inc. and an after-school program. Although other people in her group have doctorates, Lara-Meloy says, she doesn't feel that there's a limitation on her advancement at SRI. "The years of experience ... do count for something," she says.

Jeremy Roschelle, a mathematics-education researcher and the director of SRI's Center for Technology in Learning, says his work is similar to that of a university professor except that he doesn't have teaching responsibilities. His team applies for grants from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Education and attracts school districts and commercial product-developers as clients. "If you're good at bringing in the funding, you can basically do anything you want," he says. "So it really offers tremendous freedom."

Mixed effect

The economic recession seems to be having a mixed effect on the market for mathematics-education researchers. Hiring freezes at universities mean that more positions will go unfilled--an effect that young researchers are noticing, Newton says. On the other hand, some American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 money will go to mathematics-education research, says James Middleton, a mathematics educator at Arizona State University, Tempe. "I suspect the private and think-tank arenas will probably hire more to write and conduct grants," he wrote in an e-mail.

In the long run, however, there are plenty of opportunities for people who want to address the challenges of educating future generations in mathematics. "If you are interested in policy, there's room for you. And if you're interested in designing curriculum, there's room for you. And if you're interested in developing better teachers, there's questions there, too," Cox says. "It's such a broad field right now. It's juicy." 

Source: Robert Reys, Robert Glasgow, Dawn Teuscher, and Nevels Nevels. Doctoral Programs in Mathematics Education in the United States: 2007 Status Report, Notices of the American Mathematical Society 55(10), 1291 (2007)

(Click on image for full-size display.)

Chelsea Wald is a freelance writer in New York City.

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