Wednesday, July 25, 2012

School Maths is Failing Children: a US and Australian Perspective

Education Nation
Education Nation (Photo credit: Gates Foundation)
by Professor Jon Borwein, Laureate Professor of Mathematics at University of Newcastle
and Dr David H. Bailey, PhD; Senior Scientist, Computational Research Department at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, The Conversation:

Those that can’t do, teach - or so goes the famous saying. But what of those who want to do teaching? What of those who do maths teaching? Can we be sure the job they are doing is the best one for our children, or the training they are getting as teachers is adequate? Sadly, we cannot.

We, the present authors (Jon, from Australia, and David, from the USA) are research mathematicians and computer scientists. We are also the proud fathers of seven adult daughters, and a gamut of grandchildren of whom the the oldest is starting school.

Together with our spouses, we have attended a multitude of PTA meetings, sports games, concerts and science fairs. We have read almost as many report cards (and not all of them have been glowing).

But, at the end of the day, our daughters include PhDs, veterinary doctors, lawyers, teachers, web designers, postgraduate students and one senior undergraduate. We have also acquired four sons-in-law.

We have firm opinions, both as professionals and as parents. So what have we learned about teaching - and specifically about maths teaching?

Teacher preparation

This article was stimulated in part by a recent book on preparation of mathematics teachers for the classroom. While the book - Inequality for All: The Challenge of Unequal Opportunity in American Schools - deals with schools in North America, its message of uneven educational quality and uneven preparation rings true worldwide, albeit to differing degrees.

The authors of the book, William H. Schmidt and Curtis C. McKnight, approached the issue of teachers' knowledge of mathematics by asking a sample of 4,000 teachers in Michigan and Ohio the following question:
How well prepared academically do you feel you are - that is, you feel you have the necessary disciplinary coursework and understanding - to teach each of the following?
Teachers in primary school (grades 1-3) judged themselves to be well qualified only in mathematics topics they routinely taught their pupils. For even moderately more sophisticated topics, such as geometry, proportionality, and the beginnings of algebra, only 50% to 60% felt well-prepared.

What’s more, the coverage was surprisingly uneven. For basic geometry topics in one district, only a quarter of the teachers felt well-prepared, but in another 90% felt well-prepared.
In upper elementary school (grades 4-5), where topics such as decimals, percentages and geometry, variability across districts was even more pronounced.

Only a quarter of the teachers in one district felt well-prepared to teach decimals, compared with virtually all teachers in another district.

In middle school (6-8 grade), the situation was even grimmer.

The topics the authors chose (most of which are in the Michigan and Ohio standards for these grades) included negative numbers, rationals and reals, exponents, roots and radicals, elementary number theory, polygons and circles, congruences, proportionality, simple equations, linear equalities and inequalities. Here, only 50% of the teachers questioned felt well-prepared.

Fortunately, high school teachers are relatively better prepared, although there are concerns here too, particularly in more specialised areas such as 3-D geometry, logarithmic and trigonometric functions, probability and calculus.

Many US states are pressing to include probability and statistics in high school, yet less than half of the teachers surveyed regarded themselves as adequately prepared to teach the topic.

So why is teacher preparation lacking? The authors found that in grades 1-4, fewer than 10% of teachers have a major or minor degree in mathematics. This might be understandable, given the basic nature of the material. But this ratio remains even among 6th grade teachers! Even for 7th and 8th grade, only 35% to 40% had a major or minor in mathematics.

And in high school, only about half of 9th and 10th grade teachers had a specialisation in mathematics - only at 11th and 12th grade does the ratio rise to a more respectable 71%. Additional details about the Inequality for All study is given in this Scientific American blog.

To read further, go to:
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