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Sharon Hessney: From Wall Street to Capitol Hill

1 August 2011 2,509 views 3 Comments

ASA member and educator shares her insight on the future of statistics education

Jessie Biele

    Sharon Hessney works with two of her students from the John D. O'Bryant School of Math and Science.

    When you hear ASA member Sharon Hessney talk about her career teaching statistics to underprivileged high-school students, you can hear her enthusiasm for teaching in her voice.

    Years ago, Hessney left a career on Wall Street to teach math to high-school students in Boston. Since she began teaching statistics 14 years ago, she has become a tireless advocate for the advancement of statistics education, which she thinks is regressing to a method of teaching by the test.

    “The education pendulum was swinging from teaching skills-based math to teaching inquiry-based math. I learned how to educate deep analytical thinkers,” said Hessney. “Now, the pendulum is swinging back to skills-based math, which can be measured on standardized tests. This is not what students need to excel in the 21st century.”

    Earlier this year, Hessney was selected for the Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellowship Program. Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, the program gives educators the opportunity to bring their insights from the classroom to Congress by working in national policy organizations. In September, she will join 28 math, science, engineering, and technology teachers to participate in the 11-month fellowship.

    Hessney will participate in the Capitol Hill Fellowship. Even though she doesn’t know where she will be appointed, she would like to assist public officials in analyzing data pertaining to issues that are important to their constituents. “I have no idea what I really will be doing,” said Hessney. “But you better believe the analytical and statistical perspective will be applied to whatever I do.”

    This is not Hessney’s first trip to the nation’s capital. In 2009, Hessney received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Math and Science Teaching, an honor given to few math teachers across the nation. Hessney and another teacher from Massachusetts were recognized at the White House.

    Wall Street Beginnings

    Hessney began a career in real estate management after graduating from The Wharton School is at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, in 1978 with her MBA in finance. She served as the vice president of Goldman Sachs Realty and later managed a real estate consulting practice. She decided to embark on a teaching career after working at Minneapolis Public Schools as a facilities advisor during the early 1990s, and earned her master’s in education from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education in 1997.

    What exactly made her want to switch careers? She realized that although many of the workers she was hiring—and firing—could follow directions, they lacked critical thinking skills. “No one is going to get paid to calculate standard deviations by hand or even by computer,” explained Hessney. “But they could be asked to compare data.”

    Teaching Statistics Outside the Box

    Hessney began teaching AP Statistics at John D. O’Bryant School of Mathematics and Science in Roxbury, Massachusetts in 2007, after teaching at suburban high schools for a decade. The O’Bryant is a magnet school within the Boston Public Schools system. Many of its students come from underprivileged backgrounds; these students would not have an opportunity to excel in math and science without the guidance of teachers like Hessney.

    According to Hessney, the “best” students do not typically take AP Statistics because their guidance counselors have a tendency to steer them toward AP Calculus. Hessney actively recruits students whose combined SAT scores are less than 1,000 and who are not on the College Board’s AP-ready list, giving them the chance to expand their educational horizons. She has high expectations for her students, encouraging them to work hard and immerse themselves in research in and out of the classroom.

    During the school year, Hessney keeps her students on their toes with classroom assignments. Students make presentations following the George Polya format of “What do you know? What do you want to find out? Solve it! Check that your answer is reasonable.” Hessney discusses with her students surveys and experiments in the news on a daily basis. She grants extra credit to students who attend meetings of the Boston Chapter of the ASA. Each year, Hessney and her cohorts at the Boston Chapter organize a careers in statistics meeting for students in the Boston Public Schools system. Most of her students attend.

    The students’ hard work pays off. In 2010, 12 of Hessney’s students scored a 3 on the AP Statistics exam, four students scored a 4, and three students scored a 5.

    What is the secret to Hessney’s success? She allows her students to work, pro bono, on real-life projects. Each year since 2009, Hessney has had her students work as a group, analyzing real statistics pertaining to subjects that interest them.

    “It has been really important to me that my students get to see statistics in real situations that affect them,” explained Hessney. “So you can do the little problems in class … that’s okay, but not that interesting. Every year, I have found a project that needs statistical analysis that my students have done pro bono.”

    A few years ago, Boston Public Schools and the Boston Transit Police Authority teamed up to collect data about truancy rates. Undercover policemen, community workers, and truancy officers would go to random T (subway) stops on a daily basis and ask truant students questions about why they were truant. They also would collect demographic information. The project, called Operation Stopwatch, was supposed to give police and truancy officers a barometer for curbing truancy rates. However, the data were left untouched for three years. That is, until Hessney got her hands on it.

    “They had this data in an Excel spreadsheet in the worst, dirtiest form you can imagine, and they’d never looked at it,” said Hessney. “So I saw this on TV, [a reporter] interviewed the lieutenant detective who was in charge, and I emailed him and I said, ‘How would you like us to analyze this data for you?’”

    The lieutenant detective agreed to release the data to Hessney, who rallied her students to analyze and summarize it. At the conclusion of the project, Hessney invited the police, school officials, and the transit authority to the classroom to hear her students present their findings. She called it a “proud occasion.”

    “There were more guns in that room than I’ll ever want to see,” recalled Hessney with a laugh. “And it was cool because the police were really interested.” She continued, “To be able to actually do something that affects your community, that’s real.”

    Statistics for All

    Statistics isn’t just an AP course for high-school students, according to Hessney, who wants to see more statistics education for students who are not in the Advanced Placement program.

    “[My goal is] to get real statistics in non-AP classes. For this, we need curriculum and teacher training,” said Hessney. ”Also, [I’d like] to have students come into contact with statistics in the news, understand it in context, and analyze it themselves.”

    Hessney encourages those who are interested in a career teaching statistics to use data that will keep their students engaged and interested. “I always use real data,” Hessney stressed. “And try as much as you can to make data that the kids are going to be interested in. With statistics, it’s always bringing it back to something that relates to them.”

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    • Deb said:

      I believe that the Wharton School is at the University of Pennsylvania not Penn State.

    • Clay said:

      Excellent article. It’s wonderful to see these kids learning to use and appreciate statistics. I’m not saying to jettison trig and geometry from the high school math curriculum, but we really need to somehow make room for statistics. In the long run it’s such a valuable subject. A working knowledge of it is needed in virtually every field of study.

    • Neelie Neirbo said:

      This is such a good thing for a person to do. Maybe ASA/Academia could co-sponsor full college scholarships for graduates who choose to teach for 3 years in a public school. We don’t have enough statisticians to go around, but its hard to snub a degree when it comes with a full scholarship.