The Rev. Dr. Dorothy Strong, NCSM President (1977-1979) and the 1991 recipient of NCSM’s Ross Taylor/Glenn Gilbert National Leadership Award, passed away on January 2, 2022. Dr. Strong, a founding member of NCSM, served as the Chicago Public Schools Director of Mathematics for many years. As well, she was a founding member and the first president of the Benjamin Banneker Association and a member of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics Board of Directors (1987-1990). A fierce advocate for equity in mathematics education, Dr. Strong possessed a deep commitment to improving the mathematics education of students who struggled in mathematics. Her passion for mathematics education inspired a large group of protegees in Chicago and elsewhere around the nation to become mathematics education leaders.
A trailblazer in mathematics education, Dr. Strong fervently believed that all students, particularly students of color, could advance in mathematics. Dr. Donna S. Leak, NCSM Nominations Chair (2019-2021), Superintendent of CCSD 168 in the Chicago area, and Vice Chair of the Illinois State Board of Education, shared that Dr. Strong “pushed for access to higher level math courses for African-American students along with multiple methods by which to teach. She was highly sought after for professional development as well as an author of accessible materials for students. She was truly a giant in our field and will be missed. Her high expectations for children of color will live on as her legacy.”
Many of the ideas that are commonplace in our mathematics leadership worlds were not until Dr. Strong helped make them so. NCSM Past President Shirley Frye (1980-1982) shared how Dr. Strong left an enduring mark on the field of mathematics education.
From the mid 1960’s it was my good fortune to begin a friendship of decades with this most dedicated mathematics educator. Her contributions to so many important projects and leadership roles will always be part of the progress made as NCSM grew into its influential position. Among them were her seminal work with the NCSM Basic Skills document, the Chicago calculator projects, her teacher training model, and parent programs.
Dorothy had a unique way of addressing diversity, equity, competency, and curriculum before those words became programs. She was never shy about helping us, her colleagues, to find a fresh focus on the challenging issues over the decades.
While Dr. Strong worked in Chicago Public Schools, her vision and work influenced teachers and mathematics leaders from coast to coast. NCSM Past President Steve Leinwand (1995-1997) described Dr. Strong as “an unyielding force (not just an advocate) for quality, equity and fairness long before these qualities became mainstream on our agendas. She was an early guiding visionary in NCSM in its formative years and a legend in the Chicago Public Schools.” Thinking about his interactions with Dr. Strong, Leinwand recalled that “I most remember Dorothy’s ability to smile, raise an eyebrow, and tell you how wrong you were in ways that forced you to rethink your position.”
NCSM Past President Tim Kanold (2007-2009) met Dr. Strong in 1980 when he served as a mathematics teacher in West Chicago, in the far west Chicago suburbs, where his department chair was NCSM board member Lee Yunker.
Under Lee’s guidance I had started a Math Club competition team for the newly forming Illinois Regional and State tournaments. Dorothy called me out of the blue and challenged me to bring my team of 16 students into the City for competitions with several City schools, and for me to host those same teams at our school. She was not asking me to do this. She was telling me we had to do it. Dorothy Strong believed in equitable opportunities for all students and our “Competition Exchange” became an annual event, with a terrific mix of students from many backgrounds, languages, and ethnicities. That was the beginning of Dorothy challenging me to do more to support the Chicago public schools as she expected, and allowed, me to reach out to a more diverse population of students and teachers.
I have often said that math leaders are where we are in our own professional journeys because we stand on the shoulders of giants. Oftentimes, the giants on whose shoulders we stand are in turn, standing on the shoulders of more giants. Dr. Dorothy Strong is one of those giants. As we reflect on her passing, let us reflect on her legacy of expecting and demanding equity and equitable opportunities for all students, particularly students of color. Then, let each of us turn that reflection into action to the benefit of the teachers and students who are in our leadership care.