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June 27, 2008

Those Who Can't, Teach....

...math, apparently:

Elementary-school teachers are poorly prepared by education schools to teach math, finds a study being released Thursday by the National Council on Teacher Quality.

... Teacher candidates know their multiplication tables, but "they don't come to us knowing why multiplication works the way it does," said Denise Mewborn, who heads the University of Georgia department of math and science education.

The university was cited in the report for having an "exemplary program," while nine others met basic requirements. The rest offered too little math coursework or coursework that was considered weak, according to the report.

The University of Georgia requires teacher candidates to take courses to help them understand concepts underlying elementary-school math, as well as math courses not designed for teachers.

The report found significant differences in the number and kind of courses required by each education program.

Education schools also are not being selective enough, the report stated. Most require applicants to take an admissions test, usually around their sophomore year of college. But the test, which typically includes reading, writing and math sections, is far too easy, according to the report.

"Almost anyone can get in. Compared to the admissions standards found in other countries, American education schools set exceedingly low expectations for the mathematics knowledge that aspiring teachers must demonstrate," said the report.

U.S. children often fall in the middle or bottom of the pack when compared to other students on international math tests.

Jane West, vice president of government relations for the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, said her organization had not received a copy of the report Wednesday. The National Council on Teacher Quality plans to release it publicly at a news conference Thursday.

The report also criticized the tests education students take when they complete their coursework, which are generally relied on by states in granting teacher licenses. In many cases, the prospective teachers are judged on an overall score only, meaning they could do badly on the math portion but still pass if they do well in the other areas.

I know I've written about this before, but I used to tutor graduate students in the education program in California in Math. They nearly universally had trouble passing the CBEST, a fairly basic test of mathematical skills any undergrad ought to be able to pass with ease.

There is something to be said, even at the elementary level, for having a degree in the area you plan to teach in. My children attended private school for most of their school years and the best math and science teachers they had almost invariably had math or science rather than education degrees. It's not impossible to be a good teacher with an education degree: I've known some fine educators who fit this description.

But I have to wonder at the lack of formal requirements in academia, of all profession, for academic credentials in a teacher's subject area. It just seems odd; especially coupled with the reluctance to accept any empirical review of the teacher's knowledge of their subject area.

Posted by Cassandra at June 27, 2008 08:49 AM

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I completely agree. Teachers' benefits have improved tremendously (I certainly won't complain), but teacher qualifications and peer-oversight MUST be improved in order to bring the profession to the level it must be.

It's not just math; ask how many English teachers, even those with undergrad English BAs, know grammar. I sometimes think I'm one of the few remaining beings who know the names of all the verb tenses and how to conjugate them.

Posted by: goddessoftheclassroom at June 27, 2008 11:22 AM

But I have to wonder at the lack of formal requirements in academia, of all profession, for academic credentials in a teacher's subject area.

It may be just my failing grip on reality, but weren't teachers once *required* to have a degree in the subject of their expertise?

Posted by: BillT at June 27, 2008 11:35 AM

I agree, Goddess.

When I went back to school I took German and Spanish. German requires a knowledge of grammar. Kids were failing right and left because the notion of parts of speech was utterly foreign to them. Lacking any understanding of English grammar, they were unable to process the complicated German cases.

The teacher (a native German speaker) was nearly apoplectic at the inability of her students to speak their own language, much less learn hers :p

Posted by: Cass at June 27, 2008 01:37 PM

And in answer to your question Bill, elementary school teachers (if I recall correctly) got a multisubject credential. It was only the HS teachers who had, or perhaps could choose, to earn the single subject credential, which was harder.

Posted by: Cass at June 27, 2008 01:38 PM

Well, at least teachers can claim slightly more rigorous professional standards than journalists, so it's not as bad as it could be.

Cass, the German story puts me in mind of one of the teen films of the eighties (haven't a clue which one) where one character says to another, "You're failing English, man!"

"So what?"

"Dude, it's your native tongue!"

Posted by: Steve Skubinna at June 27, 2008 01:56 PM

It's okay Cass, all the teacher has to do is facilitate some hands on group activities dealing with the subject and the dagummmed kids will just teach themselves. Trust me when I say this, it's research based.

Posted by: Pile On at June 27, 2008 01:56 PM

I fear for my grandchildren when they start school.

Posted by: Donna B. at June 27, 2008 02:08 PM

When I earned my certification, I had the content area exam which covered Language Arts, Math, Science and Social Studies. I got a raw score of 90-something percent (I took the exam via computer, instead of the "traditional" paper exam the College of Education publicized, so I got an immediate result on the raw score...). The other exam is "Pedagogy & Professional Responsibility". Got a 90+ on that one, too. And I still don't have a teaching job...

In my Masters program, I had courses on "how to teach" for math, science & social studies. I've always been good in those subjects, but I know I'm rusty in certain areas. Thing is, depending on which grade you teach, you'll be covering different things, which may be why the classes aren't more specialized. In none of those 3 classes did we have lessons about specific math & science concepts, or in history/civics. Even the Language Arts classes (of which there were several) didn't really go into actual grammar and whatnot. I'm just glad I already have a good education where those subjects are concerned.

Posted by: Miss Ladybug at June 27, 2008 03:19 PM

That is a good observation Miss Ladybug. Once you are a teacher you will discover that all the professional development training deals with how to teach as well. Never are we offered content based training which would be the most help. ONe of the frustrating things for a high school teacher is the training always seems like it is developed by elementary teachers for elementary teachers who have an elementary school level education. I have pondered suicide.

Posted by: Pile On at June 27, 2008 04:18 PM

I have pondered suicide.

I've heard there's a course available...

Posted by: BillT at June 27, 2008 05:18 PM

Well yeah, but he instructors who are highly qualified to teach the course have a quit coming to work.

Posted by: Pile On at June 27, 2008 05:26 PM

No one can figure out where they've gone...

Posted by: Cass at June 27, 2008 05:44 PM

Well one thing's for certain. They will *not* be allowed back into the classroom without a note from the doctor.

Posted by: Sister Mary Bag O'Metaphors at June 27, 2008 05:46 PM

In my "how to teach elementary math" class, there was an older gentleman who had something like a Masters in Engineering who could probably run circles around me in math (and I'm not a slouch, though I am out of practice on higher level stuff). Being he was older, he didn't HAVE to work, but he wanted to teach. This very intelligent man couldn't just become a teacher. He was being forced to go through all this "how to teach" stuff. I think he was looking at teaching 4-8, while I am certified EC-4. I could maybe understand making him take courses like classroom management, but if he was wanting to teach middle school math, he's already more than qualified. But, the State Board can't make it that easy on someone like him. And he's the type of person I think is desparately needed in our educational system - someone with a practicaly knowledge and experience of the subject matter, so when kids ask "why do I have to learn this?", he can tell them...

Posted by: Miss Ladybug at June 27, 2008 05:57 PM

Never are we offered content based training which would be the most help.

The Army's Instructor Pilot Course uses a novel concept -- it assumes you already *know* how to talk, so you're immersed in Aerodynamics, Human Physiology, Radio Wave Propagation in the Atmosphere, Meteorology, Aerial Navigation, Levels of Learning, Army Regulations, Aircraft Emergency Procedures, Federal Aviation Regulations, the Psychology of Stress, How to Use the E6B Flight Computer with One Hand and Still Fly with the Other Two Hands, Maintenance Procedures, Chart Interpretation, Aircraft Operating Limits, et cetera, ad infinitum, ad nauseam.

Then they test you on your knowledge, *not* on your teaching ability, on the theory that the world's best teacher can't teach a subject he or she doesn't know *cold*.

Only then do they turn you loose to instruct.

And, once a year, every year, you're re-evaluated.

Hey -- it works...

Posted by: BillT at June 27, 2008 05:58 PM

That is an interesting anecdote Mr. T, but research shows your described pedagogical methodology to be an ineffective educational technique for todays at risk children.

Thank You.

Posted by: Professor Hippysavinthechildren at June 27, 2008 06:47 PM

Joanne Jacobs has a bit on this one. One of the commentors has a refernce to a book about the differences in math teaching between the US and China. Unsurprisingly, Chinese students do considerably better than ours at math. One of the reasons is that their teachers actually know math.

Posted by: ZZMike at June 27, 2008 08:33 PM

...research shows your described pedagogical methodology to be an ineffective educational technique for todays [sic] at risk [sic] children.

Throw some grant money my way and I'll prove drinking pomegranate martinis causes polypsychic polymorphism...

Posted by: BillT at June 28, 2008 06:26 AM

...and grammatical lapses.

Posted by: BillT at June 28, 2008 06:27 AM

*sooooo deader-than-dead*

Posted by: BillT at June 28, 2008 06:28 AM

You don't even want to get me started on this one. Let's just say that teacher education programs are one of the biggest reasons I am leaning strongly in the direction of homeschooling my children.

And never entering back into the teaching profession (in a paid sense) again.

Posted by: HomefrontSix at June 28, 2008 12:07 PM

Here, here!

I teach junior high and high school English, so I always thought that I would not have a dog in any math fight. How wrong I was. Our state tests in PA require students to write an essay on each math section explaining how they solved a problem.

The math department kept getting their rears handed to them in this scoring category, so I started to teach the math essay structure to my English classes. Ye gods of digits and formulas, what a lack of reasoning skills I uncovered. Even if they can get the right answer, they cannot tell you WHY it is right - a key component of a "math essay".

The thing we discovered is that they are no longer even memorizing the times tables in elementary school (there's a big poster with the chart on it on every wall). Therefore, when they get to us in junior/senior high, we are still teaching them basic skills.

If that is the pattern in more than just my school, is it any wonder that our next generation of "professional" math teachers cannot reason. Truth be known, I am somewhat surprised that they have the rudiments down at all.

But I am sure that my school and others like it have just failed at properly facilitating the natural desire of kids to learn properly and do work. Hopefully that is on the inservice training schedule for next year, so that we can learn to do it right and make our kids feel even better about themselves (and their natural laziness and ignorance). I SOOOO look forward to those days! /sarcasm

Posted by: UinenMaia at June 28, 2008 10:42 PM

HomefrontSix, it is nice to see another educator who has been in the public school trenches who is giving serious thought to homeschooling. I have yet to produce my little tykes, but should they arrive, my husband and I have already decided that they will fare far better at home than in any classroom, including mine.

And please do not even get me started on grammar and mechanics. It takes me an entire summer to get over seeing "u" and "4" in formal research papers, let alone the grammar mistakes that I knew not to make by 3rd grade. *shudder*

Posted by: UinenMaia at June 28, 2008 10:45 PM

It takes me an entire summer to get over seeing "u" and "4" in formal research papers...

Aren't they necessary for the grade you'll enter on their records?

Posted by: BillT at June 29, 2008 03:20 AM

Maybe if I put it in an algebraic equation. Like u-4=grade where u=0. :p

Normally, it just gives me a chance to use a really vilely colored highlighter and hit each "chatspeakism" with a splash of ink. Some of them are genuinely overwhelmed at how often they use them. Not that this little lesson means that the next research paper is devoid of linguistic shortcuts, unfortunately.

Posted by: UinenMaia at June 29, 2008 03:25 PM