Blog Post

Humanist in the Math Class

Below, is a reblog of an article from the Washington Post about teaching U.S. elementary school teachers how to teach math. One sad part about not having humanists and interpretive social scientists more involved in these kinds of discussions is that we can see the place where A and B and C should connect but don't . . . For example, in this article, Americans are castigated for our deplorable math scores. Similarly, the point is made that kids do better in math if they start learning certain conceptual apparati early--such as algebraic thinking. Finally, the point is made that many grade school teachers in the US love kids, are literate, are good with words, but themselves hated math so don't have the foundations to be teaching it or the passion to be teaching it. Now, here is a missing link: in the countries where math scores are far higher than in the US (the US, incidentally, is very near the bottom among developed nations in our math abilities), there is far less conviction that math is something only men can do. In fact, way back in the 1980s when I taught in Japan, I brought in a copy of Newsweek or Time with a cover story about how girls innately are incapable of doing math, female brains are programmed by evolution not to be abstract and mathematical. My Japanese students (I taught at a women's college) thought that was hysterically funny. In Japan, by ancient tradition, accounting is women's work. Samurai didn't even have pockets, it is always said, and didn't deign to carry money: that's for women! Back then, there were even special math juku, after-school-cram schools, especially for boys to help them get past gender-determined math anxieties so they could pass the college entrance exams. Women control almost all the domestic finances and so forth. In the U.S., girls start failing in math by junior high and are considerably below boys by high school. This is changing, but not as rapidly as the need for great elementary school teachers, the majority of whom are female (i.e. conditioned since birth to believe they won't do as well in math). That's a cycle that needs to be broken. And it is an awareness that needs to be interjected into otherwise excellence articles such as this one. There is a cultural factor that is implicit but not reckoned with in this article. It would be far better if it were there. And all the various presidential commissions on increasing America's test scores in science and math would certainly fare better if cultural factors could be brought into play. Standardized testing doesn't change a culture; it reinforces its lowest common denominators. Bring on the humanists and interpretive social scientists if you really want to address issues of educating a nation's youth!

NElementary Math Grows Exponentially Tougher
Students, Teachers Tackle Algebra

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 26, 2007; A01

JoanneTegethoff teaches algebra. Never mind that her students carry Disneyprincess and Thomas the Tank Engine backpacks and have the alphabettaped on their desks. The Montgomery County first-graders one recentafternoon were learning to write "number sentences" to help LucyLadybug. "Lucy wakes up and puts five spots on her back," Tegethofftold the class. "Then she gets confused. She wants 10 spots. What'smissing?"

Tegethoff used to teach what she called "very boringmath," using worksheets of addition and subtraction problems. Now herlessons delve into algebraic thinking. By the third grade, Viers MillElementary students are solving equations with letter variables.

Longconsidered a high school staple, introductory algebra is fast becominga standard course in middle school for college-bound students. Thattrend is putting new pressure on such schools as Viers Mill to insertthe building blocks of algebra into math lessons in the earliestgrades. Disappointing U.S. scores on international math tests haveadded to the urgency of a movement that is rippling into kindergarten.At stake, some politicians say, is the country's ability to produceenough scientists and engineers to compete in the global economy.

Buteducation experts say students aren't the only ones who need morerigorous instruction. Too many elementary school teachers, they say,lack the know-how to teach math effectively.

"You can't teachwhat you don't know, and your students won't love the subject unlessyou love the subject," Kenneth I. Gross, a University of Vermontmathematics and education professor, recently told a group of collegemathematicians at a conference hosted by the U.S. Education Departmentand the National Science Foundation. "All of mathematics depends onwhat kids do in the elementary grades. If you don't do it right, you'redoing remedial work all the way up to college. Arithmetic, algebra andgeometry are intertwined."

Gross and others say many elementaryand middle school teachers -- generalists relied on to teach reading,science and social studies and even to make sure a child's coat iszipped -- are drawn to teaching by a love of children and literacy.Most had little exposure to high-level math in college and are more athome with words than numbers.

"Many of them fear math," saidVickie Inge, math outreach director with the University of Virginia'sSchool of Continuing and Professional Studies. "Many of them hadtrouble with math themselves."

Educators, mathematicians andbusiness leaders are working to bridge the knowledge gap. At anincreasing number of schools, including Viers Mill, teachers work witha coach who helps boost their math knowledge, plan lessons and examinestudent work. The National Math & Science Initiative, funded byExxonMobil, and the National Science Foundation are grantinguniversities and school systems millions of dollars for programs toproduce better math and science teachers.

In February, a panel ofeducators and mathematicians appointed by President Bush is slated torecommend ways schools can produce more algebra-savvy students. Thepanel will lay out skills students need to have starting in third gradeto master algebra down the road. It will also recommend ways to improveteacher preparation.

Test scores released this month reignitedconcerns about math education in the United States. The Program forInternational Student Assessment found that 15-year-olds in the UnitedStates trailed peers from 23 industrialized countries in math.

What'smore, Michigan State University professor William Schmidt found thatU.S. teachers scored at the bottom of the pack on an algebra test in arecent study of middle school math teachers from six countries.Teachers in Korea and Taiwan, where students earn high marks oninternational tests, had the best scores.

"The U.S. performancewas weak," Schmidt said. He found that U.S. and Mexican teachers hadtaken far less advanced undergraduate math courses than peers in Taiwanand Korea. He also found math knowledge isn't enough. Teachers alsoneed strong training in instructional techniques.

In Virginia,George Mason University, the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech andthree other universities have teamed with local K-12 systems to improvemath teaching through a master's degree program in math and educationalleadership for elementary and middle school teachers. The program,begun in 2002, has about 60 graduates, who have returned to theirschools and become a resource for colleagues.

VirginiaCommonwealth University math professor William E. Haver, who isinvolved in the partnership, said elementary teachers need to know farmore than the standard curriculum. With a depth of knowledge, teacherscan help children understand relationships between numbers and solveproblems in different ways. Without it, teachers often rely onmemorization and aren't well-equipped to help struggling students.

"Elementarymath isn't elementary," Haver said. "There are a lot of deep ideasthere. Usually, if a child doesn't get the right answer, there's a fairamount of good thinking along the way, but it got astray at some point.If you can pinpoint that problem, you're better off."

Gross runsthe Vermont Mathematics Initiative, a graduate program that has trainedmore than 160 elementary teachers in math leadership. He drew ananalogy to elementary reading instruction. "Would you want a teacherwho has read 'Dick and Jane'?" he asked. "Or would you want a teacherwho has read Shakespeare and the masters and has a fondness forreading?"

Results in Vermont are promising. In schools with themath leaders, students are earning better math test scores than peersin similar schools. Achievement of students from poor families has alsorisen.

Judy Schneider, a 25-year teacher who is a math specialistat Widewater Elementary School in Stafford County, is midway throughthe Virginia program. She helps teachers understand math and reachstudents through dynamic lessons. Recently, she helped a fifth-gradeteacher who was preparing to teach a lesson on fractions but didn'tunderstand the material.

Math wasn't always Schneider's strongsuit, but after taking courses in algebra, geometry and statistics, sheis able to help colleagues improve.

"I was such a bad mathstudent as a child, all the way through high school and even intocollege," she said. "Math was something I struggled with, and all of asudden algebra makes sense to me. I want it to make sense for the kids."

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