Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Math Teachers Only A Chapter Ahead?

According to this report from the AP, poor and minority (read: inner city) students are more likely than others to have a math teacher who might not know much more math than the students they're teaching.

It's hard to believe but apparently true--despite the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act, which so many educators poo-poo--that about 40% of poor and minority students are still taught by teachers who have neither a degree nor certification in mathematics.

I'd wonder how people could teach high school math without a degree or certification, but then I recall that I have no doubt I could teach several high school classes in which I don't have certification. I, however, would consider social science courses--history, government, geography--where it's not assumed that, as is so often the case, you either "get it, or you don't". Here in the US we assume that anyone can learn history, government, or geography, but only a chosen few can learn math. Maybe, though, there are people who are quite good at math and just didn't major in it or take a certification test--but they're fine teachers. I'm not here to say it can't happen.

I can definitely believe this, though:

The teaching problem is most acute in the middle grades, 5-8, the report said. That's a crucial time for math, said Ruth Neild, a research scientist at Johns Hopkins University.

In California, junior high teachers can teach with a "multiple subject", or elementary, credential. As such, they probably weren't the ones who took physics and calculus in college, although I'm painting with a very broad brush there. It's entirely possible that they're weak in fractions, decimals, and negative numbers--the very skills that are so vital, often in the same math problem, in Algebra 1.

Fortunately I've never encountered these almost-innumerate math teachers of 5th through 8th graders, but I'm sure they're out there.


Elaine C. said...

We've had a few MS math teachers at my school in the past... but our principal's been replacing them (as they retire) with SS-math folks. Our last MS math teacher retired last year, so now ALL our math teachers are *math* teachers.

We also put a VERY heavy emphasis on the basic skills... And the word is finally getting down to the elementary schools! Our latest batch of 7th graders isn't scared of fractions, and it's *wonderful*! (We're only 7-8 grade.) I had to spend almost 2 months last year going over fractions before they 'got' it. (They needed a LOT of practice, and manipulatives before they figured out the whole common denominator thing.)

And as an added note: That MS math teacher that just retired? Over half of her pre-algebra kids are in 8th grade pre-algebra this year. (I had the rest of the non-honors pre-algebra 7th graders last year. Most of my kids are in Alg. I, and doing well. I'm proud of them... They really worked well last year, and are keeping up their good habits.)

gbradley said...

All of my Math teachers had problems.

Sorry, I know you've heard it before

Crystal said...

What an interesting post... I thought I just had to comment. I am a high school math teacher in California, and completely see the results of such teaching. I am teaching freshman for the first time this year (Algebra I), and am astounded to find my students can't add real negative numbers, don't know that two negatives multiply to a positive, and literally cringe and freeze in fear whenever a fraction is introduced. It is most definitely not because the students CAN'T do it, but because they have been taught that it is hard and scary, instead of being taught how to work through it.

I researched one such student and looked at her math grades through junior high, and saw she failed, went to summer school where they gave her a "c" (note I didn't say "earned" a "c", as most summer schools don't require much for the student to slip on by), and continued to fail the next year. But yet, here she is now, in Algebra I, not being able to add -2 + -3. I feel that is a basic concept that should be mastered in 2nd or 3rd grade. But yet, our elementary teachers are "multiple subject" credential holders, and most were just as scared of math their whole lives, and they pass that fear onto their students. They would much rather do science or history than truly work on having their students master fractions, decimals, positives and negatives!

It is a sad state our mathematics education is coming to, and once they get to me at the high school level, there is so much remediation to be done. They are pushing in California to have all students take Algebra by 8th grade, but that is an impossible dream if teachers at the lower levels (speaking of elementary and junior high) don't start taking their student's math education seriously. And, if that means holding a student back to truly repeat the class (and not just putting them in summer school), then that's what needs to be done. As you also said, I have not met any teachers personally who are in that group; however, I can only imagine they are out there as I am seeing the immediate results in my freshman!

Apologies for the long comment, but your post is exactly what I have been dealing with over the course of the year!

Happy Thanksgiving!

Ellen K said...

There are two problems that I see as creating issues in math. One is placing inexperienced math teachers with struggling students. We have too many coaches who teach math by handing out worksheets and calculators. I've even seen these guys on their cell phones in the hallway during class, so I know that teaching is secondary. The other problem is the pure math advocates that don't get that everyone doesn't "love" math. They speak so far above their students' levels that many of them just give up. Like it or not, all teachers have to meet kids where they are in order to bring them up to level. And some math teachers just are not equipped to do that.