How much does middle school math placement matter? As kids around the country are settling into the new school year, this question plagues worried parents who wonder if missing the cut-off for eighth grade Algebra will put their student at an educational disadvantage. For those whose kids made the cut, the fear is whether or not the student will keep up with the advanced curriculum. And both sides have cause for concern, says UCI sociologist Andrew Penner.

“We know that mathematical ability is tied to important life outcomes like success in college,” says the UCI sociologist. “But we don’t know what these policies mean for later life income, and what consequences higher level math placement can have for students right on the cut line.”

And another pressing question – will these math students have teachers to teach them? With educator shortages in math and science climbing, Andrew and his wife, Emily – an elementary school teacher-turned-UCI education professor, are studying factors that impact a teacher’s decision to leave the profession, particularly in regions where these math skills are needed most – like Silicon Valley.

“We rely on teachers to do so many things for so many kids, from developing fundamental math and reading skills, to challenging student thinking and sparking creativity and passion,” says Emily. “We are asking teachers to do more and more to meet student needs, but teacher salaries haven’t increased much on average in the last two decades and housing costs and other expenses have increased dramatically. In some places in California, it’s a challenge for even the most dedicated teachers to stay in the classroom.”

With funding from the Spencer Foundation, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and National Science Foundation, the education-focused husband/wife team is tackling these issues with the hope of impacting policy and the teaching profession on a national level.

To help, they’ve also launched a new interdisciplinary UCI center to support research using school data to guide decision-making on challenging policy issues. The Center for Administrative Data Analysis (CADA) includes professors and practitioners from UCI departments of education and sociology, the U.S. Census Bureau, RAND Corporation, Vanderbilt University and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

And the Penners also have a book-in-progress - under contract with the Russell Sage Foundation - about how schools create both equality and inequality by categorizing kids into different groups and classes.

“We keep pretty busy,” the couple laughs.

The Penners’ interest in education goes back to the early 2000s when they were living in the Bay area. Andrew was finishing grad school and Emily was working at an East Oakland school that was failing under the No Child Left Behind Act. She worked with a team of teachers, community members, parents and the district to reimagine and design the school into something new. Greenleaf K-8 is now one of Oakland’s most improved schools, and students there are thriving.

In 2008, the couple moved to Irvine when Andrew was hired as an assistant professor in the sociology department. That same year, one of his first studies on gender differences in mathematical achievement earned three different awards. Meanwhile, Emily took a job in Vista as a reading interventionist where she was able to see firsthand what happens when institutions have resources to invest in their kids; those in the intervention program made enormous educational gains. Passionate about the promise of using data to guide instruction, she returned to graduate school at UCI for a Ph.D. in education, which she finished in 2014.

“I knew how important good data were for helping my students, because I used data everyday in my own classrooms in Oakland and Vista, and I wanted to help create change at a systemic level,” she says. “Because having the right data can help you solve research questions that really matter for students.”

Both of their long-term studies build on that premise. For the middle school math placement issue, the Penners and a bevy of graduate student researchers have been building a collaborative dataset to learn how life outcomes – educational attainment and income - differ for kids right on the cusp of middle school math placement cutoff.

Those who missed the cut-off by one point know basically the same amount of math as the students who score just above it, says Emily. But in spite of this, they get placed in different courses.

“It’s striking how such a small difference may turn into such big differences later when students are not afforded the same opportunities,” she says.

They’re working with individual school districts in California and they’ve made an agreement with the state of Oregon to get test information from the state’s 220 school districts. And they’re hoping to expand to help school districts across America understand the lifelong impacts of math placement.

“I think that most people don’t care about kids’ test scores for their own sake. Rather, we care about learning and success in school because of what this means for kids’ chances to be healthy and productive members of society,” Andrew says.

For the teacher shortage project, led by Emily, they’re looking at the challenge of building a sustainable innovation and idea economy through the lens of high school STEM educators in high tech regions.

“Having high quality science and math teachers in places like the San Francisco Bay area is essential,” says Emily. “But the cost of living in technology-driven hubs can reach levels well outside the salary scale of a public school teacher.”

She and Andrew are interested in learning how often teachers leave schools to go into higher paying tech jobs and how often they leave the regions altogether in order to remain an educator in a more affordable location.

So two long-term studies, a book-in-progress, and a research center to support more education-focused work. It sounds like a lot to manage, but the couple doesn’t really see it that way.

“When I was a teacher, Andrew used to give me a hard time about being the 21st most important person in my life--after my 20 students,” Emily says. “But now we get to work together to help teachers and schools prepare kids to be successful, and it’s kind of amazing how easy it is to get lost in your work when you are doing what you love.”

-Heather Ashbach, UCI School of Social Sciences





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