by Stuart Singer, The Teacher Leader
Granted it was not typical kitchen table conversation. Jacob, now one day past his eleventh birthday party, was sitting with his grandmother and grandfather, retired high school biology and math teachers, and his father a research and development engineer. One of his gifts the previous day had been a book on Fibonacci and the conversation evolved into the relationship between the Fibonacci Sequence and nature and then to Pascal’s Triangle. Jacob, who devours math and science concepts and has been described by family members as a “hypothesis machine”, was instantly engaged.
As he looked at the paper containing four rows of the numerical scheme he exclaimed, “I need to write a report about this for my math teacher.” Though this decision was not in response to any actual school assignment, within minutes he had expanded the pattern to a dozen lines. His father found a website about Blaise Pascal and a truncated version of the mathematician’s life was written on the back of the sheet. Two days later his fifth-grade math teacher was presented with a paper involving concepts studied in Pre-calculus. This episode was reassuring because of Jacob’s unbridled enthusiasm and his obvious confidence that his elementary school math teacher would appreciate his work on this topic. The overriding question, however, was how many educators in that same position would be equally responsive or prepared.
A major concern
In recent posts Mel Riddile and I have discussed the need for math teachers to possess a strong background in the subject in order to meet the needs of their students. This requirement has been intensified as the implementation of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) begins. The CCSS places a heavy emphasis on making the math curriculum more real-world based and demands that actual applications of the mathematics be studied. In order to give students this perspective, a strong knowledge of mathematics is a necessity.
Finding high school teachers who have such credentials in either math or science can be challenging though not impossible. There are, however, two areas—elementary and special education—where the shortage of properly qualified teacher is acute.
Not so elementary
In his post on how the CCSS was changing the educational world in general and specifically in math Mel Riddile wrote:
“The Common Core State Standards will require that teachers have a deep conceptual understanding of mathematics. This is a big problem in many schools. It is not an ability problem as much as it is a preparation problem. While my expertise is not at the elementary level, my friends at that level, even in resourced, high-performing schools and districts, have told me for years that finding elementary teachers with solid preparation in mathematics and the sciences is extremely difficult. From my experience at the secondary level, we could find the math and science teachers, but we had to compete with every other school in the area for their services. They are in short supply.
Not only will the content of math instruction change as a result of the new standards, but students will be expected to apply math principles and concepts to real world situations. While content knowledge is not as much of a problem at the secondary level, the changes in the way students are assessed will pressure secondary math teachers because, for many, this is a new way of teaching. At the elementary level, both the content and process will change. What this means is that, at the elementary level, we do not have the capacity to deliver the new math standards. What this means for school leaders is that we have a massive re-training effort ahead of us.”
As Riddile notes the challenges with math instruction at the elementary school level have been a long festering problem that is being accelerated in the academic environment of 2012. As a high school math teacher I saw the ramifications of this deficiency. Too many children were entering high school with a negative attitude toward math and science. The reluctance to embrace those two subjects as well as music instruction can be attributed in part to a characteristic shared by all three—they require specific correct answers. This quality even at the initial stages of learning the subject is different from other disciplines which allow for far more individual interpretation. For these highly structured courses to be attractive to youngsters the demands on the instructors are high. To succeed they must have a background adequate to bring the subject to life for children in grades K-5.
How Jacob’s math teacher responds on that first day back at school is critical. Two scenarios immediately spring to mind. “Thank you, Jacob. I’m sure this is very good, but I don’t really understand this kind of math very well.” Or, “Thank you, Jacob. I know these are important ideas by important mathematicians but I don’t remember enough to discuss these with you at this time. Let me do a little research and I’ll get back to you.” (And then actually get back to him.) If the teacher’s qualifications are restricted to elementary school math topics and lead to the first scenario, the value of Jacob’s work would end the moment he turned in his paper.
A math PhD is not required
No teacher should be expected to know everything in a curriculum. They should be able to confidently respond to any question with “I don’t know the answer to that but I will do some investigating and find out.” But such an answer will be of little value unless one possesses the depth of knowledge to be able to effectively perform that kind of research and then present a cogent explanation. If that does not occur, the enthusiasm that Jacob carried into that classroom and the ripple effect it would have on his classmates will be lost. And years later when those students enter a high school classroom it may never be rekindled.
Next: Another highly at-risk group