Friday, June 27, 2008

Math teachers in grade school: it's hard to find the needed "people skills" and "academic skills" in the same person


There are new concerns that elementary school teachers are not prepared to teach mathematics adequately. The general spin is that grade school teachers tend to enter elementary education because of their “people skills” and legitimate desire to work with children, especially the underprivileged. But some teachers do not have the deep understanding of why things in math work the way they do.

I can remember the way I learned the multiplication tables in second grade. I remember that it was a big deal to go from the 6’s to the 7’s. The behavior of the numbers and of their digits (the number theory) seemed to catch my attention, in a way that made it easy to learn, but not everyone reacts that way.

There remains a lot of controversy over memorization and drill, compared to the underlying concepts, that start to make more sense once the student starts algebra and can deal with abstraction.

Concern moves all the way up the chain to the demands of today’s employers.

One AP story “Study: teachers don’t learn enough about math: Report says education colleges not selective enough” appeared on many media sites such as MSNBC here, yesterday. The relates to a recent study release by the National Council on Teacher Quality. The study abstract is here (PDF). The file has a sample math test that includes a little bit of number theory (about odd numbers and remainders) that have clear relevance to helping children understand how arithmetic behaves. (Yes, the quiz reminds me of graduate school at Kansas University in the 1960s.)

The AP also has an important story today by Nancy Zuckerbrod and Trevor Tompson, “Poll: Math, yes; Standardized tests: maybe” which indicates that Americans know that their kids are often not getting adequate instruction in Math and believe that standardized tests (especially multiple choice) don’t adequately measure skills. The link is here.

The sort of people who are well trained in abstract mathematical concepts sometimes don’t have the inclination to work with children or become effective teachers for reasons of personality and, often, introversion. There seems to be divide between need and resource.

Update: August 19, 2008

The Washington Times has an editorial today, "Don't know much about math." The link is here. The editorial suggests streamlining teacher certification so that people with math skills will find it worthwhile to enter teaching. The editorial suggests that neither presidential candidate wants to take on the teaching establishment, and especially the licensure mills, that meet requirements for 180 clock hours or more (15 credit hours or more) in education course.

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