When GSE doctoral student Melodie Baker finished high school, she knew she wanted to study anything other than math in college. Her feelings about the subject had radically shifted over the years. As a young child, she observed her father relying on math to guide his work as a carpenter, and from him, she inherited mathematical talent and curiosity.
Baker’s math skills were stifled in elementary school. She was placed into lower-level math courses due to tracking—the discriminatory practice of grouping students into classes based on their perceived abilities. “The focus in our classroom was more on behavior and following the rules than on creative thinking,” said Baker.
The experience was disheartening. She eventually pursued different academic pathways, earning a bachelor’s degree in public relations, communications and marketing from Buffalo State College in 2005 and a master’s degree in executive leadership and change from Daemen University in 2009.
In 2014, she became the director of education at the United Way of Buffalo and Erie County. As she led initiatives to improve outcomes for local children and families, she knew she wanted to make a significant impact with limited resources. She decided to learn more about statistics.
Baker enrolled in GSE’s applied statistical analysis advanced certificate program, where she met Sunha Kim, associate professor of counseling, school and educational psychology. In Kim’s classes, Baker remembered why she once loved math. “She’s a really good professor,” said Baker. “When you get a good professor, they do a great job of engaging students in the learning process and finding the most relevant ways to transfer learning and skills.”
Baker left an impression on Kim, too. After working with Baker throughout the advanced certificate program, Kim encouraged her to continue her studies in GSE’s educational psychology and quantitative methods PhD program.
“Melodie is relentlessly curious, personable and very motivated to do excellent work,” said Kim. “Impressively, she was selected for the 2020 Dean’s Service Award by GSE because of her outstanding service, leadership and vision to promote access to quality educational opportunities.”
Since beginning the PhD program, Baker’s commitment to helping students has intensified. She intends to use her expertise to improve educational outcomes for underserved populations—to be the person she needed when she was tracked into lower-level math as a child.
She currently serves as the national policy director at Just Equations, a California-based policy institute whose mission is to reconceptualize the role of mathematics in ensuring educational equity in the transition from high school to and through college.
Two recent achievements: receiving an invitation from the American Research and Evaluation Association to share her research
and co-authoring “Charting a New Course: Investigating Barriers on the Calculus Pathway to STEM.” The report explores factors that impede students’ progress in calculus sequences and into STEM majors, and features opportunities for postsecondary institutions to confront these barriers.
“America does not look the way that it did 50 years ago,” said Baker. “Things are changing. We must remove barriers and change access to math to address that.”