Skip to main content

To Overcome Math Anxiety, Take Math First

A corps member aims to improve high school graduation rates by confronting students’ fears of math.

Photo of Neil McDevitt teaching math

By The TFA Editorial Team

June 19, 2018

Neil McDevitt works at Innovation High School, a nontraditional school in Alta Vista that is designed to give students a second chance at high school graduation. But he observed many students make it within months of graduationthe diploma so very closeonly to drop out.

The culprit? Math anxiety.

Students at his charter school waited until the very last moment to take math courses, due to phobias or early bad experiences. Teachers bared responsibility too, for emphasizing other subject areas so they could log early wins with kids in the highly personalized, independent learning environment. Eleven San Diego corps members like McDevitt work in these nontraditional schools, where coursework is completed in self-paced single subject packets rather than on a traditional semester schedule.

“It is human nature to take the path of least resistance, but the result in delaying math until your senior year is that you get to your final 30 or 40 credits and they are all in your most challenging subject,” he said. “We needed a balanced program so students would not get crushed and demoralized in their senior year.”

McDevitt, a first-year corps member and math teacher, figured out a way to flag students for course intervention using the charter network’s database, got buy-in from central administration at the Learn 4 Life charter network and will see the new system rolled out in a trial phase this spring. Students will not be allowed to have any single subject surpass 50 percent or more of the necessary credits to graduate.

“We needed a balanced program so students would not get crushed and demoralized in their senior year.”

Neil McDevitt

San Diego Corps Member 2017

McDevitt is among the nearly 50 percent of Teach For America San Diego corps members teaching a STEM field, and one of two career-changers in the 2017 corps. He worked as a criminal defense attorney and at an inmate re-entry program before becoming a teacher, and he attributes his time as a mortgage broker for his database know-how.

“Neil is an example of a teacher who was inspired by his students to seek system-wide change,” said David Lopez, executive director of Teach For America San Diego. “We appreciate his dedication to helping all students gain the skills necessary to pursue the career or college path of their choosing.”