Sunday, May 24, 2009

Math Education Systemic Problems

Did you happen to see this Boston Globe article last week? It is about elementary school teachers in Massachusetts, but it is indicative of elementary schools everywhere.

The article states that many future elementary school teachers do not have adequate math skills. This lack of skill, or sometimes outright dislike or fear of math, is then transferred to their students. When students start with higher-level math, the fear and dislike they've absorbed from their elementary school teachers and develop an anxiety about going further.

Perhaps this explains how one student I worked with had B's in math through 8th grade, but was unable to perform calculations with fractions and decimals.

This lack of a firm foundation in math intimidates kids from pursuing careers in math, engineering and science. Following this trail of thought, I came across this CNBC story from a year ago. In the midst of a recession, companies are concerned that they will not be able to hire enough Americans to fill their engineering and finance positions, due in part to a lack of math skills.

From the CNBC story, I found my way to Bob Compton's 2 Million Minutes site. I now desperately want to watch the videos from the U.S., India and China. I'm fascinated at how the cultural differences affect education. One of the points Compton makes in the CNBC story is that in China and India, students have 4 years of math, chemistry, physics and biology. In contrast, in the U.S., college-bound students only have 1 year each of chemistry, physics and biology, and maybe only 3 years of math, and that math is often inadequate to get them through college. Almost 50% of college freshman require remedial math. In China, virtually every student takes calculus, where only 13% of U.S. students take it.

That's insane. How are we supposed to keep up with the rest of the world?

The difference seems to be cultural. We in the U.S. want our kids to have a breadth of experience, including sports, jobs and whatnot. In China or India, academics is a high priority; however, it seems as though it isn't the ONLY priority, as the Chinese and Indian students are also involved in music.

Molly Broad, president of the American Council of Education says that she believes every middle school student should have qualified teachers in math. She also says that our strength is in our creativity and entrepreneurial spirit. But with schools cutting music programs (that studies say help with math skills) and art programs all over the country, how will we foster creativity?

I really want to watch the entire 2 Million Minutes videos. I'm going to see if I can order them. If I get them, I want to get my students and parents to watch it. Broad's comments have me considering working with middle school students instead of high school students. On a personal level, I'm encouraged that one of the students I've been working with is thinking about going further with math.

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