Feature Article from 2016 AMTE Early Career Award Winner

Susan A. Peters, University of Louisville

Early-career Mathematics Educators: Our Opportunities and Responsibilities

“Congratulations!  It is as an honor to inform you that you are the recipient of the AMTE 2016 Early Career Award” (C. Thomas, personal communication, November 11, 2015).

Upon reading these words, I experienced a range of emotions from pride and joy to shock and wonderment. These feelings led me to reflect on my career to this point, particularly on the positive experiences. I was left with an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the opportunities I had during my years as a doctoral candidate at The Pennsylvania State University and as an assistant, and now associate, professor at the University of Louisville. Some of the most monumental opportunities afforded to me are not unique to me but rather represent a concerted effort to support my generation of mathematics educators as well as future generations. By examining these opportunities, we as a field might better understand what supports and initiatives—large and small—are important for mathematics educators’ development. Additionally, we as recipients of these supports can consider our responsibilities in light of the opportunities afforded to us.

Our Opportunities: Past and Present

Similar to many other doctoral candidates, I experienced tremendous support and friendship from my doctoral advisor, Dr. Rose Mary Zbiek; my faculty mentor, Dr. Maggie McGatha; and numerous other colleagues. What I have achieved has been influenced by their contributions. Further support during my years as a doctoral candidate and as a faculty member came from systematic opportunities offered to beginning and early-career mathematics educators. These opportunities include:

·     Centers for Learning and Teaching (CLTs) that largely existed between 2000 and 2010; 

·     Service, Teaching, and Research (STaR) program for early career mathematics educators that began in 2010; and

·     National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Faculty Early-Career Development (CAREER) Program that began in 1996.

For each of these programs, I share information about the program’s overarching goals and the support it provided or continues to provide to early-career mathematics educators who embrace program opportunities.  

Centers for Learning and Teaching

Pending and foreseeable mathematics education faculty retirements in part provided the impetus for NSF to fund CLTs to build infrastructure and regenerate leadership in the field (www.nsf.gov). NSF invested more than $10 million in each of eight CLTs focused on mathematics education (www.nsf.gov). This significant funding enabled mathematics education doctoral programs to offer graduate fellowships with benefits greater than those associated with most assistantships to allow for full-time doctoral study. Some CLT graduates, many of whom were veteran teachers, might not have pursued degrees without CLT support. A perusal of the numbers of mathematics education doctoral graduates for CLT institutions (Association of Mathematics Teacher Educators [AMTE], n. d.) shows increased numbers of graduates during the years in which CLTs were active.  

Beyond financial support, the Centers brought together key personnel from multiple K-12 schools and universities to allow rich networking opportunities for Center fellows in support of their research and, to some extent, teaching. The eight CLTs focused on mathematics education involved approximately 30 universities, including the top six institutions with particularly strong doctoral programs (Reys, Glasgow, Teuscher, & Nevels, 2007). Each Center included participation from between two to five universities, providing fellows with access to ongoing quality research projects and diverse expert perspectives beyond those available at individual institutions. For example, the Mid-Atlantic Center for Mathematics Teaching and Learning (MAC-MTL) sponsored an annual conference for doctoral candidates to receive feedback from MAC-MTL faculty and students. Additional opportunities afforded by CLTs included participating in ongoing Center research projects, teaching preservice teacher courses, and attending and presenting at mathematics education conferences—opportunities that all were crucial for supporting fellows to obtain employment in higher education.

Service, Teaching, and Research in Mathematics Education

The Service, Teaching, and Research in mathematics education (STaR) program was established to provide scholarly support for recent doctoral graduates in mathematics education as they transitioned into faculty positions and to expand CLT networks to graduates from other institutions (Reys & Reys, 2012). Established with three-quarters of a million dollars in support from NSF (www.nsf.gov), the program now is supervised through AMTE with financial support from donors (Reys & Reys, 2015). The program consists of a five-day residential summer institute and a follow-up session. The program’s goals include supporting fellows to: overcome challenges associated with teaching preservice and inservice teachers, establish and maintain research agendas, engage in service opportunities, and develop leadership skills.

The STaR program provides opportunities for fellows to interact with their contemporaries and with mid- and senior-career scholars in the field by attending focused sessions with strategies and advice for teaching, research, and service; receiving peer feedback on manuscripts for publication; participating in formal topical research and teaching groups; and sharing interests and forming collaborations throughout the program. Many STaR fellows report continued interactions with their research groups and cohort members long after program activities end (AMTE STaR Program Committee survey). The STaR program has supported over 200 fellows to date (AMTE, n.d.), and program feedback offered by fellows is overwhelmingly positive. Many fellows cite connecting with other mathematics educators and having a cadre of mathematics educators to whom they can turn for support, advice, and collaborative activities as the primary benefit of STaR (AMTE STaR Program Committee survey). Additional opportunities afforded to some fellows through their interactions with STaR staff members include serving on panels to discuss the STaR program at conferences, receiving invitations to review NSF grant proposals, or serving on national professional organization committees. In many ways, STaR activities directly or indirectly support fellows in advancing their careers.


Designed to support junior faculty members in the development and implementation of activities to integrate research and education, the NSF’s CAREER program is NSF’s most prestigious award to support junior faculty (Esperanςa, 2015). The program is designed to help new scholars (tenure-track university or college assistant professors) build a foundation for continued contributions to research and education, providing a minimum of $400,000 over five years. Thousands of CAREER proposals have been funded since the program’s establishment (Esperanςa, 2015), and a subset of these projects fall under the auspices of directorates associated with mathematics education. (For example, of the approximately 670 CAREER awards with 2015 start dates, approximately 1% were awarded in programs under the Directorate for Education and Human Resources and focused specifically on mathematics education [www.nsf.gov].)

CAREER projects provide opportunities in the form of time and resources for grantees to firmly establish their research agendas with support from their departments and to disseminate the results of their work. The projects build on grantees’ prior work, which in many cases is dissertation work, and many CAREER projects form the basis for future funded (and unfunded) work. Grantees with projects in the Discovery Research PreK-12 program (DR K-12) also gain support from the Community for Advancing Discovery Research in Education (CADRE). CADRE is an NSF-funded network that connects STEM education researchers through annual principal investigator (PI) meetings, newsletters, and other venues. The annual PI meetings provide PIs with additional networking opportunities to establish connections with potential collaborators and to learn about current work in the field, and the annual meeting and CADRE website provide opportunities for CAREER PIs to disseminate their work.

Summary of Opportunities

The CLTs, STaR program, and CAREER program are three programs that provided or provide invaluable support to early-career mathematics educators. In addition to financial support, those who embrace these programs gain valuable opportunities to network with and learn from other mathematics educators, advance their research agendas, gather insights into teaching teachers, and provide valuable service at local, state, and national levels. These and other programs exist to minimize faculty attrition while maximizing the quantity and quality of early-career faculty members’ contributions to sustain and advance the field of mathematics education.

Our Responsibility: Present and Future

Just as many of us tell our doctoral students that they not only need to look forward towards completing their programs but also need to look back at where they started to see how far they have come, we, too, as mathematics educators and as a field need to take stock of where we were and where we are to consider where we need to go. Although early-career mathematics educators might spend their early years establishing research and teaching agendas, they become mid-career mathematics educators in a matter of a few years and often without conscious recognition of the transition. Similarly, mid-career mathematics educators quickly become senior-career educators. As mid- and senior-career mathematics educators, we need to take stock of our roles and responsibilities not only to ourselves but also to the field to maintain a healthy mathematics education field.

The CLTs in part formed in anticipation of a large number of mathematics education faculty retirements. Faculty members who at one time were PIs for six of the eight CLTs focused on mathematics education have since transitioned to less active stages of their professional lives, as have the founders of the STaR program. As a mathematics education community, we are living in a time when the anticipation of retirements is becoming reality—many mathematics education leaders are moving into less active stages of their careers. These leaders and pioneers, as well as many others, can transition to the next phases of their careers knowing that they not only made significant contributions to the field of mathematics education but also contributed to its sustainability for current and future generations. The sacrifices made by these individuals and the supports they provided, however, come with a great deal of responsibility.

The CLTs, STaR program, and CAREER program were not designed to be ends in and of themselves but were designed to be a means for building leadership and capacity in mathematics education. Those of us who benefitted from participation in one or more of these programs and other leadership programs bear responsibility to ensure that the significant time and resources devoted to our development are warranted. This responsibility includes paying forward the opportunities afforded to us not only by contributing to our own research and teaching but also by contributing our service to the field. Service might include traditional roles such as serving on professional organization committees; serving in organizational leadership roles; reviewing conference proposals, journal manuscripts, or grant proposals; and mentoring young scholars. Service also might include the development of critical new networks and opportunities not yet envisioned to support future generations. Although many members of “young” generations of mathematics educators are serving the field, we all can contribute more to ensure that the infrastructure and leadership needed for future generations remains in place to carry out the legacy of the leaders before us. We all should consider our service contributions and what services we might provide to advance the field and to support the future of a thriving field of mathematics education.

Final Thoughts

We live in a great time for early-career mathematics educators due to the significant opportunities that exist for scholars entering the field. We also live in a time of great responsibility. In this ever-changing world in which, for example, the merits of traditional teacher preparation programs continually come under scrutiny (e.g., Levine, 2013), the need for strong leaders in mathematics education is as great as ever. Thanks, in part, to the efforts of those involved with the CLTs, STaR program, CAREER program, and other mentoring, induction, and leadership programs, current early- and mid-career mathematics educators are prepared for the challenges and ready to fulfill our responsibilities to the field.

I would like to thank Jenny Bay-Williams, Maggie McGatha, and Rose Mary Zbiek for reading drafts of this paper and offering valuable feedback.


Association of Mathematics Teacher Educators. (n. d.). AMTE STaR program. Retrieved from http://www.amte.net/star

Association of Mathematics Teacher Educators. (n. d.). Filterable/searchable list of doctoral programs. Retrieved from http://amte.net/doctoral-programs/list

Esperanςa, S. (2015). Faculty early-career development (CAREER) program [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from https://www.nsf.gov/mps/dms/career_and_pecase_information/career_webinar_slides_2015.pdf

Levine, A. (2013, June 21). Fixing how we train U.S. teachers. The Hechinger Report. Retrieved from http://hechingerreport.org/content/fixing-how-we-train-u-s-teachers_12449/

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Reys, R., Glasgow, R., Teuscher, D., & Nevels, N. (2007). Doctoral programs in mathematics education in the United States: 2007 status report. Notices of the American Mathematical Society, 54(11), 1283-1293.