Special Feature

Supporting Mathematical Success in an Increasingly Complex World

How can we ensure every student has the same opportunity to thrive as a mathematical learner?

Since its founding at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1987, this underlying question has driven the work of the Dana Center. In the late 1970s, now Dana Center Executive Director Uri Treisman challenged the assumption that some Berkeley freshmen didn’t have the ability or motivation to succeed in rigorous college mathematics courses. He designed and developed an honors program, the Emerging Scholars Program, which dramatically increased the success of Black, Latinx, and low-income students in Berkeley’s freshman and sophomore mathematics and science courses—which are gateway courses to mathematics, science, and engineering majors and careers.

Professor Uri Treisman, wearing a cowboy hat, western-style shirt, and bolo tie, smiles as he stands in front of a sign reading "The Charles A. Dana Center at The University of Texas at Austin."

Professor Uri Treisman has a “Texas moment.” Photo by Phil Swann.

By 1991, when Treisman joined the mathematics faculty and brought the Dana Center to The University of Texas at Austin, the Emerging Scholars program had been adapted for use at more than 250 colleges and universities nationwide. The program had become a central pillar of university efforts to increase the success of Black, Latinx, and Native Americans in engineering and biomedical science majors.

By that time, UT Austin’s mathematics department, working in close collaboration with the College of Natural Sciences, had become the center of national efforts to refine and disseminate the program. Now established at UT Austin, the Dana Center also expanded its work to increasing student success in K–12 mathematics and science education.

Over the past three decades, the Dana Center has worked tirelessly to create clear, rigorous pathways to success in mathematics and science for all students—while at the same time supporting the educators who serve them in and around the classroom. Looking forward to the next decade of the Center’s work, Treisman believes the greatest challenge will be to build the capacity of K–16 education systems to keep abreast of the rapidly changing quantitative demands of our economy and of engaged citizenship.

“At the scale the Center is now working, we must work closer with the disciplinary societies and leadership and policymaking organizations,” Treisman said. “These organizations have capacity and standing to reimagine and rebuild our STEM education infrastructure so that all students have the tools and capabilities to create a future worthy of their best efforts and of our country.”

Finding Clarity in Complexity

Drawing from its nearly 30 years of experience, the Dana Center continues to work across K–12 and higher education institutions to navigate this complexity. This focus includes working across all sizes and sectors of education systems to ideate, operationalize, and eventually scale the right changes, at the right intervals, and with the right stakeholders.

“While we have always been focused on continuous improvement, the past year has made it clear that we must be even more diligent in thinking innovatively and acting proactively,” said Martha Ellis, interim managing director of the Center. “With COVID-19, the educational landscape is forever changed. That is why we have been refining our strategic direction to better ensure our programs and professional learning deliver the right levels of support for this ever-changing environment.”

More specifically, the Center’s leadership and staff of more than 70 have been engaged in rich dialogues and reflection to arrive at four specific areas of focus for the next three years.

Equity & Justice

Structural racism and systemic poverty continue to impact student access and success
in education. The Center considers it unacceptable that the current system of mathematics education in this country fails to meet the needs of so many of our students—and consequentially limits their ability to participate fully in our nation’s democracy. The Dana Center will intensify its efforts to create conditions for dismantling barriers and systemic injustice, including improving outcomes for Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students as well as students from low-income communities. Consistent with the approaches that led to the founding of the Center, its approaches—including documents, data visualization, and workshops—will employ asset-based frameworks rather than deficit-based narratives and limited expectations.

Pathways

The pathways model guides each student effectively and efficiently through the K–12 and higher education systems, leading to attainment of high-quality credentials and careers with value in the labor market. Mathematics pathways—which are fully integrated within the multidiscipline guided pathways movement—are intentionally redesigned student experiences that help students choose, enter, and complete a mathematics course for a program of study aligned with their goals for career and further education. While mathematics pathways are recognized as a key component of the Dana Center’s work in higher education, this movement is now extending to K–12, and the Center will continue its focused work across the K–12 and higher education ecosystem.

Transitions

Students make many transitions in their educational journeys, starting with entering kindergarten, then moving through K–12, into higher education systems, and eventually into the workforce. One of the primary responsibilities of the Dana Center’s work is collaborating with educational institutions in redesigning institutional structures to better facilitate successful and equitable student transitions for all students—including those from low-income, Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities. The Dana Center will develop strategies, services, tools, and protocols to promote successful transitions for each student, while also contributing key policy recommendations at the local, state, and federal levels to foster equitable transitions.

Evidence Based

Over the past decade, our education systems, communities, and organizations have experienced rapid and continuing change in the use of data to inform their actions. The Dana Center has played a key role in evidence-informed decisions, feedback, and continuous improvement, including quantitative and qualitative data from the Center’s work as well as research from trusted collaborators in the field. The Center will continue to use quantitative metrics to determine milestones, assess progress, and evaluate the impact of its work, particularly in structural changes, faculty pedagogical behavioral changes, student learning outcomes, and student progression. Additionally, the Center will collect and openly share qualitative data to fully enlist faculty, student, and leadership voices and experiences in the implementation of mathematics pathways, literary, and science transformational projects.

Supporting the Process for Change

The ongoing experience and study of the Dana Center’s work have also led to deeper focus on how change can best be managed. The Center’s approach to positive change includes two defining elements: 1) systemic change that entails the mobilization of multiple roles and contributors within systems who can work together to modernize mathematics and dismantle barriers for students; and 2) work at scale to more effectively and efficiently address systemic barriers and make programs available to support many more students across the United States.

Approximately twenty members of the Dana Center Staff gather together in a group outdoors under a tree. Each staff member wears shirts or hats signifying their respective collegiate alma maters.

Part of the Dana Center staff gathers to show their collegiate pride. Photo by Phil Swann.

According to Mike Leach, director of the Center for Student Success at Arkansas Community Colleges, both factors have been critical in helping his colleagues across Arkansas make mathematics pathways work for their needs. Leach has worked with Dana Center Mathematics Pathways for five years to implement and scale mathematics pathways in public two- and four-year higher education institutions in Arkansas.

“Many organizations will come and talk to you about their ideas and expertise, but they aren’t really positioned to help states think through how you actually get the work done,” said Leach. “The Dana Center has worked with us as a management partner to help us think through all the steps and components—from professional development to the data needed for continuous improvement. The Center staff understands how to support institutions at scale.”

It’s this ongoing focused commitment to working alongside K–12 districts, higher education institutions, policymakers, and workforce and equity advocates that drive the staff’s passion and action.

“Every day, everywhere, educators are rolling up their sleeves and creating innovations to difficult challenges affecting their students’ academic success and their futures,” said Treisman. “Yet they need help if we are to avoid isolated innovations that wither for lack of support. We must continue to find ways to bring about educational transformation at scale. Today’s students will be tomorrow’s citizens. They need to be fluent in mathematical thinking, not only to help them attain new opportunities but also to contribute to the disciplines and technologies that are vital to the future of our economy—and our world.”


Lara Zuehlke
Growing up on a pig farm in central Texas, I was certainly no stranger to the idea of working hard. My parents were both educators, teaching students across K-12 and postsecondary. So my passion for education comes naturally and has led me to sharing stories through marketing and communications at four different Texas universities over the past 20 years.

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