Tuesday, August 26, 2008
More male teachers needed in grade school; teacher pay for results; how to teach math--use sports?
Occasionally we hear stories that school systems need to recruit more men, especially young men, into teaching, particularly in lower grades, in order to have more role models for economically or otherwise disadvantaged boys. Men have sometimes resisted this call, partly because of higher pay of other careers, and partly because of sensational media reports of occasional teacher misconduct, which may be quite small as a percentage of teachers, but which nevertheless gets attention.
The Washington Post has a front page story this morning of a new 26 year old fifth grade teacher at Park-McCormack Elementary School in Prince Georges County, MD. The teacher, along with a wife and fifteen-month-old child, had moved from Utah. The story is by Nelson Hernandez, has the title “First-Day Jitters Aren’t Just for Students: New Pr. Georges Teacher Already Learning Lessons,” link here.
The students wear uniforms at this school. This has been a trend in some lower income areas to reduce rivalry, gangs, and resentment, and maintain better discipline. The teacher was learning that “classroom management” (a bit of a euphemism in education circles) was a big deal, despite intense training after a political science major in the “Teach for America” program. The classroom has a private bathroom whose access must be rationed; some grade school classrooms have these, especially if disabled students attend.
At the particular school, 90% of the kids qualify for meal subsidies. 85% are Hispanic, and over 50% speak poor English. It seems to me that English, with its many irregular spellings (although simplified grammar), homonyms, and derivative words, could be a difficult language to learn later in life for people raised on Spanish, which is a very straightforward language. I add from my own subbing experience a Spanish word that English should assimilate: “la tarea” for “task” or, specifically, homework (“les devoirs” in French).
In PG County, 25% of high school students fail to graduate in four years, with many failing ninth grade.
The Washington Post today also has an instructive editorial on p A12, “More Pay for Good Teachers: Why do unions oppose it?” here. The editorial discusses the resistance to pay-for-results plans in both Denver and Washington DC, where Michelle Rhee has created controversy, although the Post says experienced and tenured teachers may not perceive much incentive to “risk it.”
There was an interesting article by Kenneth Chang in the New York Times April 25 suggesting that word problems may not be the best way to teach how to solve algebra problems. The article, referring to research at Ohio State, is titled “Study suggests math teachers scrap balls and slices” here. The study seems to suggest that kids tend to remember the superficial aspects of the problem and not how to translate it into algebraic equations. This is a surprise. Most physics problems are solved by translating into equations. And one would think that sports word problems would, out of simple self-interest, inspire students to formulate algebraic (how fast do you have to swim to win a race) or geometric and trigonometric (how far does a batted baseball have to go to be a home run over Boston’s “Green Monster”) relationships.
Update: September 1, 2008
The Washington Post Metro, p B02, has a long perspective "Add It Up: Math Matters" about mathematics education in DC area schools. The link is here. Many schools are trying to force as many students as possible to take Algebra by eighth grade, resulting in watered-down algebra, and a lot of work for personal tutors.
Update: September 22, 2008
The Washington Post continues the stories on the "controversies" of starting Algebra earlier, of preparing grade school students for it, and of the "abstract thinking" required as algebra progresses, here in a story by Mary Alison Chandler teaching at Fairfax High, link. The story gives links to successive stories by Jay Matthews.
I took Algebra II in 11th Grade in 1959-1960 and found it much easier than Algebra I, which in those days started in the Ninth Grade. It simply took practice to gain fluency with skills like factoring. (Think how you teach it: inspection for all possible term divisors, trial; on typical test problems, usually there are only a few possibilities.)