Improving the Odds for Teachers

Ten years ago, the American Statistical Association (ASA), the world’s largest community of statisticians, invited local middle-school math and science teachers to a “Meeting Within a Meeting” at its annual conference in Salt Lake City. A decade later, the initiative is still going strong, drawing 44 educators and administrators to the 2016 Joint Statistical Meetings (JSM) in Chicago this past August. The teachers were there to learn about statistical concepts and how to teach them from experts in the field—all of whom were in Chicago for JSM and volunteered their time to lead various sessions.

Statistics hasn’t always a focal point in math and science classrooms, but Common Core and other state standards have changed that, placing higher priority on statistics and probability expertise. In 2014, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projected that statistician employment will grow by 27 percent from 2012 to 2022. But according to ASA, other research has predicted a shortage of people whose analytical skills are up to snuff.

Some math teachers—especially those trained decades ago—have struggled to align their lessons with the new emphasis on statistics. “The majority of teachers weren’t necessarily prepared in college to teach the content they’re teaching now,” said Rebecca Nichols, ASA’s director of education. “One of ASA’s missions is to work to improve education at all levels. Meeting Within a Meeting is one avenue for that outreach.”

ASA Executive Director Ron Wasserstein addresses Meeting within a Meeting participants

ASA Executive Director Ron Wasserstein addresses Meeting Within a Meeting participants

The initiative started at JSM 2007. The late Martha Aliaga, then ASA’s director of education, “wanted to do more to help teachers,” said Nichols, who also worked in ASA’s education department at the time. She remembers Aliaga pointing out that the conference drew “amazing statistics educators” from all over the world. With so much academic talent convened in a single city, Nichols said, “[Aliaga] thought, why don’t we do something for teachers while we’re there?”

The Meeting Within a Meeting (MWM) has continued ever since, following JSM from city to city, although its form has shifted over the years. By its second year—at JSM 2008, in Denver—it had expanded into a two-day workshop with separate tracks for elementary-, middle-, and high-school teachers. The years since have included a trip to the U.S. Census Bureau in Washington, D.C., an optional add-on to attend the International Census at School workshop, and individual workshops for middle- and high-school teachers.

Although it didn’t set a record for attendance, Nichols said 2016 was the most successful MWM to date. “Things just went extremely well,” she said, citing a New Zealand educator’s talk on teaching statistics and a screening of the documentary “Navajo Math Circles,” with a presentation from one of the professors involved in it.

Many of the sessions had titles that may not mean much to anyone outside the world of math education—”Investigating Patterns of Association in Bivariate Categorical Data”—but Nichols said they’re invaluable for teachers looking to expand their statistics expertise. The program offers both teaching strategies and lesson-plan suggestions, along with basic information.

The statistics educators who lead these sessions—mostly professors from prominent colleges and universities—donate their time and expertise to MWM. They often miss sessions or even entire days at JSM to instead help dozens of local teachers. Teacher attendees paid a $50 registration fee this year, but Nichols said donations allowed ASA to fully refund that cost. (Admission used to be free, until Nichols discovered that people are less likely to no-show when they’ve shelled out even a small fee in advance.)

Noting that MWM is “a drop in the bucket relative to the need,” Nichols said she hopes not only to continue boosting attendance at the annual conference—slated for Baltimore, July 29–Aug. 3, 2017—but also to offer more workshops and other opportunities for teachers outside JSM. “Right now,” she said, “we’re looking at ways to increase the impact and reach more teachers.”

According to Nichols, making sure local teachers know about the Meeting Within a Meeting (MWM) program is one of the initiative’s biggest challenges — especially since it switches cities every year. Here’s the outreach strategy she’s developed:

› ASA advertises for MWM using its own membership channels. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics helps spread the word to its members, too.

› For each host city, Nichols also contacts the state department of education and nearby school districts, and utilizes the AP Statistics listserv.

› She further boosts interest by offering teachers a certificate of participation from ASA and the option to receive 0.5 graduate credit hours through Adams State University.


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