Ben Passty Makes Mathematics Count

By Marilyn Sherman

The family business is mathematics for Ben Passty, a fellow in SESP's Multidisciplinary Program in Education Sciences (MPES) program and a third-year doctoral student in economics.

Passty's father is a mathematics professor at Texas State University (his mother is an English professor), and he also counts as family the mathematics department at Trinity College, where he earned a BS in mathematics. "The people involved in math delighted me with their thinking and were fun to interact with," he says.

Passty's affinity for mathematics was forged during his undergraduate years, when he was president of the math society, founded a math fraternity, took the "fiendishly difficult" Putnam mathematics exam and created a three-week honors course for junior high mathematics. Later he mastered the "math boot camp" for first-year doctoral students in economics.

Passty is quick to point out that mathematics is a way of training the mind to think. He says, "You can't do it with broad concepts; you need specifics. It's like going to a gym and lifting weights or running a mile. You need to train." In the end, though, "the rewards to being able to think clearly and logically are very high," he says.

"The best-kept secret in academe is that when you get high enough in any field, they'll expect you to do math," he notes, adding that mathematics is useful for almost every avenue of life. "Math as a tool is all over — it's everywhere!"

A follower of Freakonomics author Steven Levitt, Passty does research that measures human behavior. He generally uses regression analysis, a statistical method that can predict the influence of one factor on another. "A lot of what I do involves working with data — understanding the process that generated that data and how to treat data statistically and say something about it," he notes. Recently his research has focused on crime. For example, by examining demographics and how they apply to crime, he found that urban states had better services for dealing with crime in rural areas than rural states did.

As a fellow in the MPES doctoral program, Passty will do his dissertation research on an education-related topic. One area of interest to him is the gender gap in higher education — the preponderance of women in college compared with men. "I'm trying to investigate if there might be a policy-driven explanation," he says.

Lately Passty has been working on "an exciting new approach to the gender gap," using National Education Longitudinal Survey data to examine the effects of parenting on whether a child ultimately attends college. His preliminary results show that very different parenting actions affect women's vs. men's decisions to go to college. Early indications are that time-intensive parenting leads to more likelihood of college attendance for boys.

Passty, who is concerned about mathematics education, identifies the most pressing problem as "figuring out a way to reach students who mentally check out of math ... finding a way to convince them that math will improve their lives." He sees the charisma of the teacher as key: "Part of the art of teaching is to be able to sell to people."

He is also concerned that mathematics polarizes people — partly because of the difficulty of solving problems and partly because learning mathematics is seen as solitary. "Math people need to develop other areas of themselves," he says. For him, those other areas include music and social dancing.

Passty says his future may be in academics or consulting for school districts. But there is no doubt that it will include mathematics. "People who open themselves up to math are the ones who have the most exciting things going on," he contends.

The MPES program, which is funded by a training grant from the Institute for Education Sciences in Washington, D.C., was created by SESP faculty and faculty in economics, psychology, sociology and statistics. This innovative interdisciplinary doctoral training program develops a cadre of scholars trained to conduct reliable research on pressing issues in education.

By Marilyn Sherman