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Sunday, July 19, 2015

Math Class: The Champ at Slowing Down the Fast Learners by Dr. Doug Green,

Follow on Twitter as @drdouggreen
Dr. Doug Green, former teacher of chemistry, physics, and computer science writes in a guest post via Starr Sackstein, teaches writing and journalism in New York City, "The only way to close achievement gaps is to slow down the fast learners."

Compared to other disciplines, mathematics has a much smaller number of concepts to learn. As a result, the students with high math ability are often needlessly held back. They also run the risk of boredom during math classes.

At the other end, students with poor math skills get dragged on to new concepts before they master current lessons. Since much of math is hierarchical in nature, not mastering early lessons can make later lessons impossible to comprehend. This is less of an issue in other content areas.

While other lessons often rely on background knowledge from previous lessons, students who don't master previous lessons can still appreciate new material to some degree.

The one-size-fits-all single pace approach that many teachers still use is, therefore, more of a problem in math class than elsewhere. By the time middle school rolls around, most schools sort students into advanced and regular math classes. This is done so that the top students can take some variation of algebra in eighth grade for which they receive high school credit.It allows those that wish to take four more years of math during their high school career for a total of five credits. The final credit is usually some variation of calculus that may include an Advanced Placement class, at the end of which is the national AP exam in May.

Catching the Calculus Train
Students who take calculus in high school are well positioned to major in engineering or physical science in college. Students who miss the eighth grade algebra train most likely won't be able to take calculus their senior year, and will be at a huge disadvantage if they want to pursue engineering or physical science. This so-called train actually leaves the station for most students at the beginning of seventh grade. In order to take what amounts to math 9 in eighth grade, teachers have to cram math 7 and math 8 into the seventh grade year. This requires schools to identify candidates for the advanced math program near the end of sixth grade.

In my case, my school gave some standardized tests to sixth graders. As fate would have it, I was absent for these tests. Rather than ask the teacher if I was advanced math material, I was dumped into the seventh grade section that was one notch above the class that contained students with major cognitive issues. This meant that I couldn't take calculus my senior year, but that didn't stop me from majoring in chemistry. During my calculus I class in my freshman college year, the teacher asked the class if they had calculus in high school. As I looked around I noticed that I was one of only two students who didn't raise his hand. Ouch!

I struggled, of course, but managed to graduate none the less. My lack of calculus in high school, however, affected not only my math grades but grades in physics and physical chemistry. This meant that my career options did not include a PhD in chemistry. I decided to pick up a masters in education and go into teaching. I guess I can't complain as I have enjoyed a great deal of success as an educator...

Top Math Students Seldom Go Into Teaching
Students who are good at math have a lot of options. As a result, few of them go into teaching. Since the US educates more teachers than it needs, education is often seen as an easy major on most campuses. This is just the opposite of Finland where you need to be in the top 10% to be accepted in a teacher preparation program and they only prepares as many teachers as they need. People who major in elementary education tend to have even lower math skills and the teacher prep programs do little to address this. If you are wondering why the Common Core math results seem to be stuck at low levels, keep in mind that a few days of staff development will not turn teachers with poor or average math skills into math whizzes.

The other big problem in the math area shows up when students head off to college. This shows up to the greatest degree at the community college level. Community colleges tend to be open enrollment so anyone who wants to go and finds the money can enroll. Since these colleges know that their incoming students aren't all of the blue chip variety, they make them take placement tests in language arts and math. When I asked the math chair at my local community college how students do on the placement test, he told me that two thirds don't pass. This means that they have to take what amounts to high school math in college for which the have to pay but they don't receive college credit. Many of these same students also flunk the language arts test. What this means is that these students have very little chance of picking up a two-year degree in two years. Studies I have seen indicate that my local college is typical of other two-year schools in the US in this regard.

Source: Education Week (blog)