Doing a Number on Math Education

Bill Speer, director of UNLV’s Math Learning Center, earns a national lifetime achievement award with his forward-looking approach to teaching math.

By Juliet V. Casey | Originally posted on UNLV News Center

Bill Speer, director of UNLV’s Math Learning Center

When Bill Speer talks about life, he has an artful way of using mathematics to illustrate his point.

And when explaining how 6×2 and 2×6 are two completely different circumstances but yield the same numeric answer, he has an artful way of using life to show why.

“Math isn’t about memorizing a bunch of steps,” he said. “It’s about the meaningful steps that represent something real in life. I believe firmly that there’s a reason for everything in math. It’s not just magic from a guy in a toga.”

Prestigious Award

This constant conversation and exploration of the meaning of life and the meaning of math have earned the 72-year-old director of UNLV’s Math Learning Center the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) this year.

The council is the world’s largest mathematics education organization, with 60,000 members and more than 230 affiliates throughout the United States and Canada.

Daniel Brahier, a former student of Speer in the 1980s who later went on to work with him at Ohio’s Bowling Green State University, said Speer was known for being innovative and inspirational. Brahier was among a number of Speer’s colleagues and mathematics leaders from across the country who nominated him for the award.

“I was not disappointed when I took his class,” said Brahier, who is now the director of Science and Math Education in ACTION at the Bowling Green School of Teaching and Learning. “It was many years before I fully appreciated how far ahead of his time he was in the teaching methods that he promoted – hands-on, inquiry-based, student-centered – all of the teaching strategies that research backs today.”

Brahier and Speer served on the 1991 team of mathematics leaders that implemented the first set of mathematics learning standards in Ohio.


Pioneering Approach

“(Bill’s) forward-thinking ideas came to fruition in that document and paved the way for reforming teaching practices across the country,” Brahier said. “Meanwhile, Today’s Mathematics, a textbook Bill coauthored with Dr. Jim Heddens from Kent State University in Ohio, was the top-selling elementary mathematics methods teaching textbook on the market.”

All told, Speer has authored or co-authored eight textbooks, 36 scholarly books or chapters, 38 editorships and 40 research projects. He also has given 57 keynote addresses and has written 100 invited papers.

Since joining UNLV in 1995, Speer has become a constant in advocating for and implementing improved mathematics standards in Nevada. He served on the statewide review team for the 2010 common core state standards that have become the foundation for the state’s current Nevada academic content standards for mathematics.

Speer has served in various leadership roles at the university, including interim dean for the College of Education. He also helped launch the UNLV NCTM student group. His leadership also brought to Las Vegas NCTM annual meetings and regional conferences.

Speer’s latest project is re-defining remedial math for UNLV students. At the Math Learning Center, Speer and his colleagues use digital learning programs and other strategies to help students review or see for the first time key concepts they need to place into a higher-level mathematics course than they might otherwise be ready for.

“We don’t want to just go over what the student has already been over,” Speer said. “If they come to us because they are not ready for college credit math, traditionally – sadly – that problem was dealt with by looking backward, rather than taking a fresh look and approaching things in a new way.”

Kim Metcalf, dean of the College of Education, said work at the Math Learning Center represents the culmination of Speer’s research and vision for the future of mathematics education.

“I can’t imagine anyone who has made more of an impact on their field,” Metcalf said. “He is well respected and well liked at the state level and across the country. And there are tens of thousands of people who now teach a certain way, and hundreds of thousands of students who have learned or are learning math in a way that is the direct result of the work and research of Bill Speer.”


The Why?

Speer takes a questioning approach to teaching, with why being the first and constant question he poses to his students and encourages them to ask him.

“This becomes a collaborative process,” Speer said. “That’s a huge difference from what traditional programs do.”

Moving away from the traditional and accepted way of doing things has defined Speer’s career and life trajectory.

As he put it, life has been a series of points in a line that took him from the classroom in DeKalb, Illinois, to UNLV. “But it wasn’t a straight line,” he said.

Growing up in the small town where barbed wire was invented, the young Speer was expected to go to college and be a success. He tried accounting and was bored. He was not cut out for business, and was not interested in entrepreneurial pursuits. This led to his academic probation for several semesters and nearly being kicked out of school.

But he loved his math classes.

He credits his late wife, Marjorie, for motivating him to pursue his talents in math. “My wife was the one who gave me reason to get serious and turn it around,” Speer said.

Really Learning Math
Soon after graduating college, he was recruited to teach basic high school math. Then, he had another epiphany. Although his students were doing the problems correctly, they were not learning math.

For instance, he was teaching them how to solve for square roots using pencil and paper, going through a long series of complicated steps. They all completed the steps, but one student persistently asked, “Why are you doing what you’re doing?”

Over three days, Speer worked with the student to figure why taking that particular series of steps results in the answer to the square root of a number. Speer realized that no one ever told him either.

“Turns out to be the simplest thing to understand,” Speer said. “It’s not a math problem. It’s geometry! The rules we encounter in school mathematics are not the real mathematics. It’s the process we use to establish those rules that reflect the true nature of math. And it’s that ‘aha!’ moment you have with a student that you can count as success.”

Las Vegas Review-Journal: UNLV program fast tracks teachers to Las Vegas schools

By Natalie Bruzda Originally posted on Las Vegas Review-Journal

The middle schoolers bustled into the classroom at 8:30 a.m.

They were rowdy, exchanging smiles and stories with one another, and the student teacher at the center of the classroom tried to get them to focus.

“What have we learned so far about the Medici family? Who were they?” Dylan Barnard asked twice.

Victor Romero, left, site facilitator for the 4th annual Rebel Academy, leads a history lesson for middle school students as Heidi Guy, right, student history teacher, observes at the Losee Campus of Somerset Academy in North Las Vegas, Thursday, June 28, 2018. | via Marcus Villagran Las Vegas Review-Journal @brokejournalist

At first the room failed to quiet down, but Barnard, a Rebel Academy participant and a UNLV student on the path to obtaining his provisional teaching license, persisted.

“What if I said they were the first mafia?” he asked.

One student spoke up: “That’d be cool.”

Barnard then launched into the final day of teaching social studies at the UNLV-led Rebel Academy.

For the past month, Barnard and 13 other UNLV students fulfilled the practicum portion of the state’s Alternate Route to Licensure program.

Instead of being embedded in a classroom over the course of a semester, the student teachers wrote and implemented lesson plans over a fast-tracked four-week period at Somerset Academy in North Las Vegas.

Iesha Jackson, an assistant professor at UNLV and co-director of Rebel Academy, said that while the program takes place over a shorter time period, it’s a better experience than what the students might get in a traditional practicum course. She said they’re working directly with both a mentor teacher and a university supervisor, both of whom give immediate feedback.

“I think this particular approach helps to prepare them for the rigors of teaching in a way that you don’t get spreading this out over a full semester,” Jackson said.

Learning to teach

Receiving feedback on how to build a proper lesson plan benefited Barnard, who fell in love with history on trips to Europe with his family, right away.

“I’ve learned so much,” he said. “Because I am a history buff and because I love the subject so much, I’ve tried to go with too much information at once. We only have 60 minutes. I can’t try to teach thousands of years worth of information in 60 minutes. But I’ve tried, and I’ve failed.”

Jackson said she’s received “consistent” feedback from the mentors that the 14 student teachers have “grown tremendously” over the past month.

“The mentor teachers are seeing them develop into the kinds of teachers they would want as colleagues, which I think is a huge testament to the recruitment process, but also the Rebel Academy and the ways in which the program is structured,” Jackson said.

Kelley Smith, a mentor and a high school teacher at Losee Academy, said she’s grown too.

“I think I’ve learned as much as the student teachers have,” said Smith, who will begin teaching at Robison Middle School this fall. “We’ve had a lot of contact, a lot of discussion. It reminds you of why you got into teaching.”

Smith said she’s advised Barnard and Heidi Guy, another student teacher, that social studies doesn’t have to center around note-taking. Over the past four weeks, the students did not take any notes in class.

“They were shocked at how much the kids actually retained and knew from the very first lesson,” Smith said. “I’ve tried teach them, ‘Yeah, you’re going to have your days when the kids have to take notes.’ But if you get them involved, you make it a discussion-based class and you value their opinions, they’re going to hold on to that information.”

Jobs lined up

On Thursday, Barnard wrapped up the summer curriculum with a review of the Medici family and engaged the students through a game of mafia.

He will soon put the experience to use. Barnard will teach two U.S. history classes and three world history classes at Chaparral High School in Las Vegas this coming fall.

It’s an example of how the flexibility and timing of the summer program benefits those who sign up, Jackson said.

Students like Barnard can begin a teaching position in the fall, as long as the other requirements — two additional courses and passing scores on the Praxis certification exams — are met.

Guy, 47, who circulated around the room and encouraged the middle schoolers to keep their voices down as Barnard told the story of the Medici family, doesn’t yet have a job lined up. But the experience has been fulfilling.

She had been contemplating the elementary school route but now realizes her passion for teaching history to middle school students.

“It just feels like the right place to be,” she said.

Contact Natalie Bruzda at or 702-477-3897. Follow @NatalieBruzda on Twitter.

Did you know?

Nathaniel Torgerson, left, 6th grade, accuses Alex Beasley, right, 7th grade, of being a member of the “mafia” during a party game activity at the 4th annual Rebel Academy at the Losee Campus of Somerset Academy in North Las Vegas, Thursday, June 28, 2018. | via Marcus Villagran Las Vegas Review-Journal @brokejournalist

The Rebel Academy has been providing practical teaching experience to UNLV students since 2015. Those who participate in the academy are part of the Alternate Route to Licensure program, which provides teacher candidates with a conditional teaching license after several criteria have been met. To date, 77 student teachers have taken part in the Rebel Academy. Iesha Jackson, co-director of the academy, said it’s a way to fast-track students into vacant teaching positions across the state.

“Color Does Not Equal Consciousness”: Educators of Color Learning to Enact a Sociopolitical Consciousness

Dr. Iesha Jackson (Teaching and Learning) co-authored an empirical study with colleague Dr. Michelle Knight-Manuel (Teacher’s College – Columbia University) that explores how secondary educators of color attempt to support their Black and Latino male students’ navigation of particular inequities related to college knowledge and access. The research, published in the Journal of Teacher Education, highlights culturally relevant professional development for inservice teachers of color.

This study is based on an initiative for increasing college and career readiness for Black and Latino male high school students in New York City. From data that include 58 total hours of participant observations from 24 educators of color, written documentation from culturally relevant education–professional development (CRE-PD) activities, and transcripts of six group interviews, we examine these educators’ work to further their own sociopolitical consciousness in relation to increasing Black and Latino male students’ college and career readiness. We explore how secondary educators of color utilize pedagogical tools and practices in attempting to support their Black and Latino male students’ navigation of particular inequities related to college knowledge and access. Our findings highlight educators’ experiential knowledge as a pedagogical tool, approaches to preparing students for postsecondary opportunities, and missed opportunities to enact a sociopolitical consciousness. Recommendations for inservice educator PD and future research are discussed.

June 2018 Doctoral Dissertations

Rebecca Gates, Derek Riddle, Beth Gersten, Jennifer Golanics and Elizabeth Sanders will defend their doctoral dissertations this month. We congratulate each of them on all their hard work leading to this momentous day.

June 18, 2018 • 10 a.m. • CEB 315A

Candidate: Rebecca Gates, Educational Psychology & Higher Education
Dissertation Title:
“Having or Serving: Perceptions of HSIs”
Committee Members:
Dr. Doris L. Watson, Chair
Dr. Kimberly Nehls
Dr. Stefani Relles
Dr. Maria Casas, Graduate College Representative

June 18, 2018 • 3 p.m. • CEB 399

Candidate: Derek Riddle, Teaching & Learning
Dissertation Title:
“A Descriptive Exploration of Self-Directed Professional Development”
Committee Members:
Dr. Jori Beck, Co-Chair
Dr. Emily Lin, Co-Chair
Dr. Steven Bickmore
Dr. David Vallett
Dr. Lisa Bendixen, Graduate College Representative

June 19, 2018 • 12:45 p.m. • CEB 315A

Candidate: Beth Gersten, Educational Psychology & Higher Education
Dissertation Title:
“Learning Communities and Early Student Success”
Committee Members:
Dr. Vicki Rosser, Chair
Dr. Alice Corkill
Dr. Nathan Slife
Dr. Helen Neill, Graduate College Representative

June 22, 2018 • 9:30 a.m. • CEB 315A

Candidate: Jennifer Golanics, Educational Psychology & Higher Education
Dissertation Title:
Malingering Undetected Successfully: Does Extrinsic Motivation and Coaching Have a Significant Impact?
Committee Members:
Dr. E. Michael Nussbaum, Chair
Dr. Dana Bickmore
Dr. Scott Loe
Dr. Joseph Morgan, Graduate College Representative

June 25, 2018 • 1 p.m. • CEB 236

Candidate: Elizabeth Sanders, Educational Psychology & Higher Education
Dissertation Title:
A Qualitative Study of School Psychologists’ Perception and Interpretation of Their Professional Identity
Committee Members:
Dr. Scott Loe, Chair
Dr. Sam Song
Dr. Steve McCafferty
Dr. Cori More, Graduate College Representative