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State of Education: Dana Center marks decade of innovation in advancing opportunities for all Texas students

Professor Uri Treisman, director of the Charles A. Dana Center, is always asking questions. Shortly after joining the faculty at The University of Texas at Austin, he asked, “How can we best mobilize the resources of the university to support public education?”

Professor Uri Treisman teaches his freshman calculus students
Led by Professor Uri Treisman, the Charles A. Dana Center's programs and initiatives affect each of Texas’ four million public school students.

Treisman answered the question by building the university's Dana Center, which this week celebrates its 10-year anniversary with a reception on Dec. 2 and a day-long symposium on Dec. 3 dedicated to the theme of “Strengthening Texas Education.”

The Dana Center is unusual among educational organizations in both its range and its approach. Dana Center initiatives—which focus around math and science education—work with homeless youth and Advanced Placement mathematics teachers, kindergarten students and members of the Texas Legislature. They directly or indirectly reach each of Texas’ four million public school students.

Since the Dana Center has become a key player in math and science education, Texas students have achieved stunning success in those fields. Texas is considered a national and global leader in math education. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found that Texas' African American, Hispanic and white students are ranked first in the country in its "nation's report card" in math.

Student achievement in science has skyrocketed on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) and gaps in TAAS performance are rapidly narrowing between white and minority students.

As Texas students continue to expand their possibilities for learning, the Dana Center continues to broaden its initiatives. But understanding the Dana Center is not so much about knowing everything it does.

Grade 4 Texas students now lead the nation in mathematics
Data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that Texas students now lead the nation in mathematics.

Understanding the Dana Center has more to do with knowing how it views the challenges of strengthening public education. Every project the Dana Center undertakes, from tutoring elementary students to coordinating massive research studies on school finance, is approached with four guiding principles in mind: equity, collaboration, consensus and neutrality.


It is Friday afternoon on campus in a classroom in Ernest Cockrell Jr. Hall, and students are laughing. They are not laughing over weekend plans or stories from the previous night. They are laughing while they work together on advanced problems for their freshman calculus class.

Christopher Sinclair, a fifth-year Ph.D. student in mathematics, moves from group to group checking in, prompting and congratulating. Students work problems together and point out errors in each other’s calculations. Working at the board, Sinclair turns toward the class and says, “This is a fundamental theorem of calculus in its most glorious and beautiful form.”

This type of enthusiasm is not unusual in workshops in the Emerging Scholars Program (ESP), a multiethnic honors-level program for freshman calculus students. ESP offers students six hours of intensive workshops each week where students work on complex problems in small groups and as a class.

ESP is a benchmark program of the Dana Center, and its long-term goal reflects the center’s focus on equity: to have the future population of mathematicians and scientists reflect the diversity of the American populace.

While teaching at the University of California at Berkeley in the 1970s, Treisman asked a critical question: What was keeping his African American and Hispanic students from excelling in calculus? Their poor success rates were preventing them from going forward in coursework that would enable them to become engineers, scientists and academics, but the cause for these poor success rates was not clear.

Treisman’s research found that it was not lack of academic preparation, motivation or skills that kept the students from succeeding, but rather a sense of academic isolation. They studied alone, and they didn’t establish a learning community.

Treisman founded ESP as an answer. Today 150 universities across the country have programs modeled on ESP, and to date 1,264 students here have participated in the program. ESP participants consistently earn grades one-half to one whole grade point higher than those of their non-ESP counterparts. Moreover, the students create friendships and learn how to help each other tackle challenging material.

Stacie Scruggs tutors Selina in the after-school Reading Club at Blackshear Elementary in Austin
ACEE member Stacie Scruggs tutors Selina, a second grader, in the after-school Reading Club at Blackshear Elementary in Austin.

The Dana Center focuses on creating equal opportunities for learning for all students, regardless of race, region or background.

“The accident of where a child goes to school must not affect his or her opportunity to engage in challenging coursework,” Treisman says.

This is supported across the learning spectrum in numerous programs. The Dana Center is the home of the university’s only national service program, AmeriCorps for Community Engagement and Education (ACEE). ACEE, whose 53 members commit to a year of service, provides early literacy intervention in six Austin elementary schools. Members tutor students from kindergarten through the third grade, and they also work closely with communities and families to support students in the schools.

Mary Ellen Isaacs directs the ACEE program for the Dana Center. She notes that the research-based curriculum for ACEE, as well as the support it gives to its members through providing an on-site literacy expert at each school, reflects the Dana Center approach to its projects.

“We really are about equity,” she says. “We are trying to create future learners who are well-prepared, no matter what their situation. We work with them at the very beginning of their schooling to build the foundation for future academic success.”


If ESP shows that students learn best in a collaborative environment, it follows that the work of improving students’ education can best be done in a collaborative environment.

“We don’t do anything in isolation,” says Susan Hull, project director for the Dana Center mathematics team. “We actually work with leaders, with teachers, with higher education, with administration and with professional organizations across the state to create all of our products.”

Collaboration is key to the success of one of the projects for which the Dana Center is best known. In 1994 the Texas Education Agency (TEA) named the Dana Center the subcontractor to coordinate development of the math and science standards for every school child in the state.

The accident of where a child goes to school must not affect his or her opportunity to engage in challenging coursework.

Professor Uri Treisman
Charles A. Dana Center

To undertake this massive project, the Dana Center assembled action teams that represented all of the major stakeholders, brought people together at conferences and field tested its findings.

“That’s the spirit of the Dana Center,” Hull says. “We are not doing something to somebody, but working with networks to help people create things.”

The standards they helped develop, known as the mathematics and science Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), were adopted by the Texas State Legislature in 1997, and implementation of the TEKS has been a focus of Dana Center work since then.

The Dana Center developed numerous resources to support teachers in teaching the TEKS. Its TEKS Toolkits in math and science provide free comprehensive resources online and include everything from overviews of the TEKS to classroom guides. These online toolkits received more than 1.5 million visits during the 2001-02 academic year.

The Dana Center also provides professional development opportunities for teachers and administrators through its Texas Teachers Empowered for Achievement in Mathematics and Science (TEXTEAMS) and TEKS for Leaders series. Hull says the Dana Center professional development has served more than 130,000 teachers in mathematics and science.

Donna Wise, K-12 science consultant at the education service center in Kilgore, says that when she speaks to teachers who are preparing students for the new state assessment in the 96 public schools she serves, “The first place I send them is to the Dana Center toolkit Web site.”

Dana Center products such as charts, posters and sample activities are essential to her job of helping teachers. And Wise confirms that collaboration never stops at the Dana Center.

“One of the things I love about the Dana Center,” she says, “is that they’re always looking for new teachers or fresh ideas to help build new products. They are always looking for new ways to help teachers.”


The Dana Center has come to be known as an expert at getting people to work together.

“The Dana Center was successful in building a mathematics community that is not at war,” says Paula Gustafson, mathematics director at the TEA.

In other states, there are groups fighting about what it is important to teach.

“What they’ve done most effectively,” Gustafson says, “is they’ve involved the state at all levels in conferences, panels, etc., so that you have a wide range of people coming together for a common purpose.”

Student performance on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills has been improving since 1995
Student performance on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills has been improving since 1995, and gaps in performance between white and minority students are narrowing.

Consensus is key when undertaking projects that require continuity across the state. When the TEA contracted with the Dana Center to create a new science safety manual, Jim Collins, science programs coordinator at the Dana Center, says the center thought it would be easy: “Oh, we’ll do the research, write the manual and get that out.”

Instead, they discovered that safety standards for science classrooms across the state were inconsistent, and teachers weren’t getting current and correct information on what procedures they needed to follow to create a safe place for their students.

“It was amazing,” says Collins. “We would never think of sending our football team out onto the field without helmets, but we send our kids into the lab without safety goggles.”

The Dana Center assembled a team that included contractors, engineers, experts at the TEA and Texas Department of Health, as well as people working in science classrooms, to establish safety standards. And it got them to agree.

The Dana Center now has written a second edition of a safety manual specific to Texas laws, plus two versions of a national manual, as well as science facility standards. It has worked with the legislature to standardize what should be in a science classroom. It trains teachers and district leaders throughout the state on safety.

Collins says that the Dana Center understands that building consensus begins with allowing people to be heard.

“Sometimes our greatest role is to listen,” he says.

We always keep the individual child’s face foremost in our mind in everything we do.

Professor Uri Treisman
Charles A. Dana Center


“I never tell anybody to vote for or against a bill,” says Harrison Keller, project director for policy at the Dana Center. Instead, he says, the Dana Center tries to be an “honest broker,” offering policy makers the information they need to deliberate.

Policy work at the Dana Center is undertaken in three primary ways: through conducting large-scale research projects around educational issues; through providing technical support, often commenting on proposed policy and helping to draft legislation; and through assisting in education through graduate seminars in policy, information sessions for legislative staffers, briefing candidates and sending speakers to state and national conferences.

The Dana Center is able to work with the legislature in such varying ways because it maintains what Treisman calls “a rigorous neutrality and independence.” It does not advocate, it informs.

In the upcoming legislative session in 2003, Keller and Treisman will be offering a pre-session workshop for legislative staff focused around key education issues.

In conjunction with a graduate seminar at the LBJ School for Public Affairs, the Dana Center is preparing policy briefs for the workshop on school finance, standards and accountability, teacher quality and other issues. The briefing documents will offer an overview of the issue and then put the key competing positions side by side.

Maintaining this neutrality enables the Dana Center to do policy work that has wider impact than simply advocating for an issue could.

Professor Uri Treisman
Professor Uri Treisman will continue to ask questions to discover how the university can help strengthen public education.

“The thread that runs through all of the policy work that we do is the question, ‘How do we improve the quality of deliberations about education policy?’” says Keller. “If people have better information and balanced information and are able to ask harder questions of each other, we’ll get better policy.”

Looking to the Future

When looking at the state of math and science education in Texas, it is hard to find areas where the Dana Center is not having an impact. Dana Center initiatives demonstrate what a rich resource the university—working in partnership with policymakers, educators, state agencies and local communities—can be for Texas education.

When asked to reflect on the past 10 years at the Dana Center, Treisman says that mathematicians aren’t interested in looking at the past.

“We’re interested in what hasn’t been done, what we can’t yet do,” he says.

The most important thing for Treisman is that the future reflects the ultimate goal of the Dana Center: that each and every student, regardless of race, location or economic status receives the best education available.

He says, “We always keep the individual child’s face foremost in our mind in everything we do.”

Vivé Griffith

Photos of Professor Treisman: Marsha Miller

Other images courtesy Charles A. Dana Center

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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