Establishing a Culture of Positive Expectations in Math Education

February 14, 2019

Editor’s note: Darryl Hill graduated from the International Baccalaureate program at Tallahassee, Florida’s Rickards High School in 2000, where he was also a member of Mu Alpha Theta. He went on to coach the Rickards math team from 2000 to 2005, receiving the 2003 Sister Scholastica Award from Mu Alpha Theta. Several of Darryl’s Rickards students qualified for the highly selective USA Mathematical Olympiad (USAMO) and one of them was a USAMO winner.

Darryl holds a Doctor of Education from Harvard University, three Master’s degrees, and a BS in psychology and business administration from Florida A&M University.

Many math team coaches from across the United States often ask me about the secrets to having a successful competitive mathematics organization because of the success that we have had at Rickards High School. I am very flattered by these questions and comments because I don’t consider myself to be an expert on such matters, and I know there to be other organizations that are far more accomplished than we. Nevertheless, because of the positive impact that being involved with competitive mathematics has had on my life, I am very delighted to provide the abridged story of Rickards’ math team from my perspective with hope that it will inspire more students, teachers, and volunteers to become enthusiastic and motivated to start or improve their own organizations.

Middle school math team members learning together. Developing a successful math team means building and maintaining a positive attitude among students.

Starting and supporting a competitive math team is not easy, and there is no hard and fast formula for success; unlike mathematics itself, running a math team organization is more an art. As a well-trained artist may have the paint and canvas to create a great portrait, a lesser-trained artist could have the same paint and canvas, yet attain strikingly different results. To this end, a great deal of Rickards’ success stems from adversity experienced in its early years with a lack of continuity, belief, and positive energy. Moreover, we have been strong advocates of inspiring students to become involved with mathematics at an early age. Finally, dedicated faculty, parents, students, and volunteers with understanding school administrators are fundamental for this type of organization to prosper.

I started competing in the Florida Association of Mu Alpha Theta, the Florida chapter of the National Mathematics Honor Society, as a seventh-grader at Deerlake Middle School in Tallahassee. As a middle school student taking rigorous high school level courses (Algebra I in seventh grade, and Geometry in eighth grade) I was exposed to mathematics concepts for Mu Alpha Theta that were above and beyond the requirements for the courses, and both courses moved at a rapid pace. Through this experience, I gained a great appreciation for mathematics and mathematics competition; Deerlake was the top school in the city for Algebra I and Geometry, and we were very confident as we participated in competitions. We knew that we would go to the competitions and be successful because our courses were top notch, and in addition, we were well prepared with appropriate supplements by our teacher. At the end of eighth grade, a group of my friends and I decided to attend Rickards High School for its International Baccalaureate Program. We recognized that the program was the most rigorous and comprehensive program available, and we were confident that we would receive the highest quality education in all subjects, including mathematics.

Upon arriving at Rickards, my friends and I were also interested in continuing with Mu Alpha Theta at the high-school level. Much to our surprise, our experience at the high-school level was very different from what we experienced at Deerlake. The math courses that we took were not as challenging, and we had a very poorly planned math curriculum sequence; mathematics at the highest International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement levels were not offered, and the mathematics faculty did not provide us with a clear and correct road map for the way in which the top students would progress. Throughout high school, the concepts that were presented in honors mathematics classes were not aligned with what we needed for mathematics competition or any traditional honors course, and the math team was devoid of a positive culture of expectation. While Rickards’ Mu Alpha Theta was in its infancy, the teachers involved in the program did not drive the students to excel and reach their maximum potential in mathematics and mathematics competition; instead of encouraging us to go above and beyond the minimum and reach for new heights, we settled for mediocrity. Rickards was not well respected at the competitions; students who went to the competitions from Rickards accepted this status, and internalized this belief to the extent that it became a self-fulfilling prophecy—Rickards students couldn’t do well, so Rickards students didn’t do well.

Since my friends and I were not accustomed to this type of mediocrity, we tried very hard to improve the culture of expectation. I felt that I had personally gotten too far behind in mathematics to compete, so I encouraged those around me who were gifted in mathematics to try harder, and we set incremental goals for Mu Alpha Theta: first, to be one of the top three schools in the region, then, to be one of the top ten schools in the state. In my senior year of high school, we reached those goals, as we became the top school in the city, beat every team in the region, and placed eighth in the state. As more students and parents realized that Rickards was making strides, we began to attract more talented students for the math team.

When I graduated from high school, I intended to leave Mu Alpha Theta behind, but I formed relationships with new students and maintained relationships with old ones that kept me involved. Since my college was in the same city as Rickards, I continued to ensure that the students had access to math competitions and study materials to become better math students. A lack of continuity and historical involvement often impeded our program; our practice materials were incomplete and unorganized, we were not aware of the importance of participating in competitions such as the American Mathematics Competitions or National Mu Alpha Theta because they were deemed “too hard,” and our curricula were still not aligned with the most rigorous mathematics standards for fear of difficulty. We realized that we were behind, and gained this understanding through benchmarking: looking at what the well-coached teams did and making changes accordingly. We needed more support to make these changes, and we were very lucky to get it.

One of those avenues of support has come through starting students with mathematics competition at an early age. Since Fairview Middle School opened a Pre-International Baccalaureate Program, we have formed a very close, positive, and cohesive relationship with them to ensure that there is a continuous pipeline of students who are interested in mathematics. Terry King, hired at Fairview shortly after the program opened, encountered the same lacking culture of expectation that I did when I started as a student at Rickards. Instead of settling for mediocrity, she also encouraged her students to excel, and Fairview has consistently been amongst the top teams in the state in Mu Alpha Theta, Mathcounts, American Mathematics Competitions, and a host of other mathematics activities since her arrival. The partnership that has resulted from our relationship with our primary feeder school has helped to ensure that students are acculturated to high expectations before they enter high school; we set goals as a single entity, and we reach them together.

Though Fairview was successful and provided Rickards with the majority of its high caliber students, Rickards did not have a faculty member who understood the dedication that being involved with mathematics competitors requires until Jason Wiggins was hired. A Rickards alumnus, his experience with the culture of mediocrity in mathematics at Rickards led him to earn a mathematics degree. Eager to teach, Mr. Wiggins has been the key force in revamping the math curriculum sequence; Rickards now offers the highest levels of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate mathematics, and he is knowledgeable about what it takes to be successful in mathematics competition. Mr. Wiggins and Ms. King both realize that working with gifted mathematics students is a great honor; teachers will learn from the students and, in turn, become better mathematics students themselves. Parents and administrators have also been supportive of the time commitment that it takes to be competitive, and have given time and resources to ensure that the students have access and are successful in competitions.

In developing and sustaining a mathematics organization, a culture of expectation must be prominent, and stakeholders must be dedicated and willing to sacrifice mornings, afternoons, weekends and sometimes vacations to be successful. We’re also very lucky to be based in Florida, where mathematics competition is very popular and experienced teachers provide wonderful examples for running math teams. As time has passed, Rickards has gone from being a laughingstock to becoming a well respected, well run organization to which the best students are attracted. While people often point to me as the reason behind the organization’s success, I honestly believe the major thing that I am responsible for is helping to create a culture of expectation and helping students gain access to these ventures. Though I am no longer involved, I still believe that both Fairview and Rickards have a long way to go; since neither has won every competition attended, I am not yet satisfied. Nevertheless, as we get our students involved early, participate in more competitions, and have a better curricular sequence with dedicated faculty, I predict that Rickards will reach new heights and continue to rise as time passes, and that any school that learns from our mistakes and follows our positive example can also be very successful.

Enter your email below to receive monthly digests of AoPS News articles, updates, and more!