Thursday, May 25, 2006

May 25, 2006--"Don't Know Much About A Science Book"

Today there is yet another report in the NY Times about falling scores on math and science tests in the nation’s high schools (linked below). They report some improvement at the elementary school level and even some closing in the gap between white and minority students. But why the persistent problem at high schools?

Department of Education officials see it to be because of an insufficient supply of “fully” qualified teachers--too few with sufficient “content knowledge in math and science.”

I wonder. And further, I wonder why we even require everyone to take math in high school. (More about that in a moment.) I also wonder why we continue to teach math as if from a cook book. If it is true as many claim that most math teachers did not major in a mathematics while in college and thus have to teach from cook-book-like texts, then we should try to attract more math majors to teaching—though this will not be easy since they will have to start out earning about $30,000 a year, much less than they could make elsewhere.

But before we decide this is the way to proceed, let me indicate what one must do to become fully qualified to get licensed to teach math in New York State. It means that as an undergraduate you must take Calculus I, II, and III, plus Differential Equations, Advanced Statistics, etc. Then you need to complete at least 30 credits of teacher education courses and do student teaching. You as well need to earn a masters degree. Then you can get certified to teach in the South Bronx and earn your $32K (New York City’s minimum for a beginning teachers).

A simple question—what does having taken Calc III and Differential Equations have to do with being prepared to teach Algebra and Geometry at the high school level? All right, or Trigonometry? I suspect not that much.

Now, why do we require all students to take these math courses? I do not have a good answer. Since only a tiny percentage of the population ever uses much more than arithmetic in their everyday personal and work lives, what’s really the point? (When was the last time yoiu took the Square Root of anything?) Some educators say that there are intrinsic benefits—mathematical thinking transfers to many aspects of life. By studying math one acquires various analytical skills that have wide application.

No one would argue that acquiring these skills isn’t essential to a successful life; but then why not teach them directly, rather than indirectly via math? In place of the math sequence, couldn’t we require courses in Critical and Analytical Thinking, as well as others in the history of mathematical and scientific thinking?

Some, though, would argue that if we disestablished math requirements many from low-income backgrounds would be tracked away from elective math courses (which high schools should of course offer) and thus be shunted from the possibility of math- and science-related careers. But since interest and aptitude in math and science shows up early in children it could be fairly easy for educators to take note of that and make sure those children get into high-quality math and science classes. Those must be taught by fully qualified teachers who should be paid a competitive salary.

At the moment, because of the torturous ways in which these subjects are offered to all, more youngsters who, as a result do poorly in these courses, get turned off to academics in general and drift toward indifference, getting lost in the process.

But we will likely not have this discussion because there are math- and science-education industries that are more about serving and preserving the interests of their profession than that of their students.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home