The University of Arizona

UA Professor Starts Company to Focus on Supporting Common Core Mathematics Standards

By Tech Launch Arizona, February 24, 2014

Professor Bill McCallum has started a new company dedicated to transforming mathematics education across the U.S.

Bill McCallum
Bill McCallum

University of Arizona Distinguished Professor Bill McCallum has started a new company dedicated to transforming mathematics education across the U.S. Through an exclusive agreement with the UA, McCallum has licensed the rights to the content and technology that form the basis for Illustrative Mathematics, a nonprofit company dedicated to helping develop, teach and implement the Common Core Standards for mathematics.

McCallum, previously the head of the Department of Mathematics within the UA College of Science, has been involved in mathematics education throughout his career and was a lead author of the recent national standards known as the Common Core. He started working on Illustrative Mathematics in 2011 as an initiative of the UA Institute for Mathematics & Education, which was in part funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

McCallum says that he started Illustrative Mathematics because "I wanted to use the Common Core as a platform supporting – nationally – a discerning professional community of teachers who understand the coherence of mathematics and develop shared tools for implementing the standards. Improvement in mathematics education ultimately depends on teachers. If teachers have focused, coherent and rigorous standards to work from, they can portray the way mathematical ideas build over time. If teachers can show students the ways in which mathematics is used in science, engineering and finance, they can reveal to students the beauty of mathematical ideas."

The new nonprofit will continue to develop the Illustrative Mathematics website as a free resource for K-12 mathematics educators, and serve as a key mechanism for involving teachers across the country in creating targeted, innovative ways of teaching mathematics concepts and skills as defined by the Common Core standards.

Those standards, developed through an initiative led by a coalition of states to establish a single set of K-12 educational standards for English language arts and mathematics, are designed to ensure that students graduating high school are ready to start college or enter the workforce. They help parents, teachers and students all have a shared, clear understanding of what students need to know.

Having such shared standards promotes equity by making sure that all students, regardless of the state where they go to school, obtain the skills and knowledge they need to be competitive with their peers around the nation and around the world.

Illustrative Mathematics combines the standards themselves with community-developed resources designed to illustrate and teach those standards, including tasks, videos, lesson plans and curriculum modules. Educators can download and use these resources as teaching tools in their classrooms. The site also serves as a place where educators can discuss the effectiveness of the tools, and help improve future iterations.

"Illustrative Mathematics arose out of a promise I made while working on the standards: to provide illustrative problems illuminating the meaning of the standards," McCallum said. "But it has grown into much more: a community of 20,000 teachers and mathematicians who explore the standards and comment on grade-appropriate mathematics tasks."

As they develop over time, those future derivations and iterations of the work also will become integral parts of the company's exclusive license, making Illustrative Mathematics a growing, evolving resource for mathematics educators.

Tech Launch Arizona, the UA's technology commercialization initiative, facilitated the negotiation of the agreement.

Along with improving mathematics education, Illustrative Mathematics is creating jobs in Arizona and around the nation. The nonprofit has hired five employees in Arizona, created 25 jobs nationally, and has 75 consultants. Over the next five years, McCallum projects the need for 25 employees in Arizona, with the potential to grow significantly nationwide.

Joaquin Ruiz, dean of the College of Science and vice president for strategy and innovation said, "It is this kind of contribution we are making towards improving STEM education across Arizona and the nation that serves as a prime example of how important it is to have a commercialization mindset that is not just turning UA work into profit, but making meaningful contributions to the future of Arizona and our nation in the form of improving K-12 student outcomes."

McCallum received his doctorate in mathematics from Harvard University in 1984, and joined the faculty of the UA in 1987. In 2005, he received the Director's Award for Distinguished Teaching Scholars from the National Science Foundation, and in 2006 he formed the Institute for Mathematics and Education at the UA. In 2009-2010, he was one of the lead authors for the Common Core State Standards in Mathematics.

The UA conferred the title of University Distinguished Professor upon McCallum in 2006 in recognition of his sustained contributions to educational excellence and a demonstrated outstanding commitment to undergraduate education.

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Paul Tumarkin
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Tech Launch Arizona
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PaulT@TLA.arizona.edu