Milwaukee Teachers Weigh In: What's The Formula To Success In Math?

Feb 6, 2017

When you were in school, did you comprehend math?

It’s a subject that doesn’t come easily for everyone. In fact, in Milwaukee, there’s a big achievement gap in math among students – one of the widest gaps in the country.

But the city does have bright spots – individual schools and classrooms where teachers are approaching math in a new way. And they’re seeing results. 

UW-Milwaukee instructor Leah Rineck is a self-described ‘math nerd.’ But she understands that math is a sore spot for many of her students – she works primarily with “remedial” learners. For them, for whatever reason, math just doesn’t click.

But, Rineck says any student can be good at math. She even - in the spirit of a true math nerd - has her own formula for success:

Positive attitude x Productive work = Success

UWM students in Leah Rineck's Math 94 course work out homework problems on the whiteboard.
Credit Rachel Morello

“Anybody, given the correct mindset, will actually succeed at mathematics,” Rineck says confidently. “It’s one of those things, you have to apply yourself and do it!”

It’s a formula Rineck emphasizes in Math 94, a new remedial course she helped develop at UWM.

There’s no lecture. Instead, it’s trial and error. Students attempt tons of sample problems as homework. Then when they come to class, they work together on items that stumped them. Students meet four days a week. They push their desks together, so they can work in small groups.

This format emphasizes persistence. When Rineck brings the class together to go over problems on the board, students aren’t allowed to say ‘I don’t get it.’

"You can’t tell me, ‘I don’t get it’,” Rineck tells her students. “You have to say, ‘I don’t get it, because of this…’”

Instructor Leah Rineck (center) leads her Math 94 class in an exercise about number lines at UW-Milwaukee.
Credit Rachel Morello

And Rineck’s “formula” is working. In prior years, less than half of remedial (or “developmental”) students passed UWM’s traditional math lectures. Now, pass rates have reached 75 percent.

And for the most part, students say they like the class.

“[It’s] literally the first ‘A’ I’ve ever earned in math, in my entire life!” chuckles sophomore Mitch McBrayer, who took Rineck’s class last year.

By the way, talk about challenges – the 40-year-old is legally blind. He says math has never been an easy subject for him, yet he can’t manage to talk about Math 94 with a smile on his face.

“My positive attitude in reflection on that class has a lot to do with how the class was structured, how much positivity is built into the class, and how much attitude is a big part of the curriculum,” he reflects.

The key word for success in this college-level math course is 'positivity.' But for K-12 students, the key is 'teaching.'

So, the key word for success in this college-level math course is positivity.

But for K-12 students, the key is teaching.

“For me, it would be emphasis on rigor in math, combined with great teaching in a student-centered classroom,” says Mark Ketterhagen, principal at Milwaukee College Prep’s Lloyd Street campus. The MPS charter school boasted the best score in the city last year, for growth in math.

Ketterhagen attributes that improvement, to a shift in his staff’s mindset. Whereas teachers used to stand at the board and lecture, today, they give the students time to explore math concepts on their own.

“We really have to switch to a new model of teaching that moves beyond just repetition of numbers and computation,” Ketterhagen explains. “But that has to come with a teacher who is comfortable having a student-centered room.”

“So often, math instruction is teacher-centered, where the teacher is explaining and the students are listening,” he continues. “So that’s been a really big shift.”

Data from Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction shows that among MPS students, just 15 percent are considered “proficient” in math.

But there are things teachers can do to boost those numbers, according to UWM instructor Leah Rineck. For instance, she says use new technologies, focus on study skills, make sure students are taking notes in productive ways.

And again, she says, it all comes back to positivity – because trying new things can be hard for both students and teachers.

“You are able to grow your knowledge with practice,” Rineck reassures. “It’s okay to make mistakes, and it’s okay to struggle, because you’re learning!”

And, Rineck adds, math requires patience. In today’s fast-paced world, teachers and students have to accept the fact that numbers don’t always come quickly.