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Sunday, June 29, 2008

“Ed. Schools Flunking Math Prep”

According to a study released on June 26, 2008 by National Council on Teacher Quality, colleges of education are doing a terrible job of preparing teachers to teach elementary math. In many universities, the professors in the college of education do not teach the math for elementary teachers; usually the professors are from the math department, and those math professors agree that newly-minted elementary teachers are poorly skilled at teaching math.

The report looked at 77 elementary education programs around the country, or roughly 5 percent of the institutions that offer undergraduate elementary teacher certification.

It found the programs, within colleges and universities, spend too little time on elementary math topics.

Author Julie Greenberg said education students should be taking courses that give them a deeper understanding of arithmetic and multiplication. She said the courses should explain how math concepts build upon each other and why certain ideas need to be emphasized in the classroom.

The fact is many education programs already require students to take courses intended to “explain how math concepts build upon each other and why certain idea need to be emphasized in the classroom.” Other researchers (i.e. Liping Ma, James W. Stigler, James Hielbert, Harold W. Stevenson) have found that American teachers compare poorly with teachers of other countries both in their understanding of math and their ability to teach it. So what is the problem?

Any of the math professors could have told you, but a study is more convincing. A PhD candidate at the University of Arizona is working on a dissertation about the attitudes of pre-service elementary teachers in the "math for elementary teachers" course. The candidate video-taped students in their elementary math classes, conducted interviews of students and their math professors, and analyzed the students evaluations of the class. She found that students approach the elementary math courses with one of two attitudes: either they consider themselves a math learner and see the course as an opportunity to learn more, or more commonly, they see the course as a waste of time because they already studied the material in elementary school and think their understanding is already more than sufficient.

The dissertation confirms what professors of these courses have observed again and again. Students tend to be hostile because they believe the courses are nothing but meaningless university hoops. Nevertheless, alarming numbers fail the classes. Some universities have a 50% fail rate. Students retake the course until they barely pass and then they move on, eventually becoming certified teachers, even though their math understanding is still woefully inadequate.

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

Truth be told, the math professors do play a role in the problem. Many of them do not want to teach this kind of low-level content, deeming it a waste of their expensive and prestigious PhD's. Besides, they know students tend to down-rate the instructors of these courses, hurting the instructor's evaluation mean. Furthermore, math professors often fail to customize the course for education students. One way to motivate the unmotivated is to present the material in the context of anticipating and preventing children's math misconceptions. But since nearly all the math professors have never taught young children, they are unable to provide the information the future teachers want.

Without the misconception frame, students may believe that there is something wrong with them, an idea that is very hard for them to accept after twelve years of gratuitous self-esteem building. Even when a math educator with experience teaching children explicitly teaches the class in terms of children's misconceptions, students often remain hostile and become even more resentful when they perceive that for some reason unknown to them they are not succeeding in what they believe should be a “skate” class. They will often punish the instructor with unfairly harsh evaluations. No worries about the instructor's self esteem.

College students are naive if they believe that a professor cannot match up anonymously written student evaluations to the individuals who wrote the evaluations, especially in a class of around 25 students or less. The dissertation video-taped fraction lessons. Pre-service teachers, even when gently confronted with conceptual errors, grouse, “So what? What difference does it make?” and other similar responses. The same students inexplicably writes in the evaluation that they did not get much out of the class. No wonder, with the bad attitude going in.

American children are especially weak in fractions, so it should come as no surprise that elementary pre-service teachers, given that they are often among the least scholastically able in the university, are especially weak in fractions as well.
"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.

One of the main reasons American children do poorly in international comparisons is because their teachers are ill-prepared to teach them.
(Francis) Fennell, who instructs teacher candidates in math at McDaniel College in Westminster, Md., said a common area of weakness among his students is fractions—the same subject the national math panel described as a weak area for kids. "Part of the reason the kids don't know it is because the teachers aren't transmitting that," he said.

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