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Why Math Knowledge Is Crucial For Teachers


Q. It seems kind of mean for people to criticize teachers' colleges for not requiring future teachers to take a lot of math in college. Especially if you're just going to teach grade school, why should you have to have that "hard" stuff? If you're not teaching higher-level math, why should you need to know more than basic math?


A rather disturbing bit of information on teacher college education requirements came to light in Kentucky recently. In that state, it is possible for elementary teachers to graduate with only a single college math course, below the level of college algebra, in their curriculum folder.


While college officials said this very low level course was not remedial, it does appear that it is merely a retread of a former remedial math course, on about the difficulty level of middle-school math. That means that the last four or five years of math classes in a decent high school are more rigorous than this one semester course that a prospective teacher can take in order to get a college degree in education.


"Dumbed-down" math requirements may not be that prevalent in the nation's teachers' colleges, but there's a wide gap between what math training teachers are required to have, vs. other kinds of disciplines, including business, the sciences, and most other academic pursuits.


No, a grade-school teacher shouldn't have to be able to do rocket science or NASA-quality physics demonstrations. But a lack of proper schooling in the discipline of thinking mathematically has far-reaching negative consequences.


Teachers who are weak in math may miss errors in student papers that have calculations in subjects other than math - history, science, book reports, you name it. So the students don't learn to think correctly and recognize their own math errors.


A teacher with poor math skills is much more likely to make errors in gradepoint averaging; this happens more frequently than many administrators or parents know. A math-averse teacher may be very good at teaching other subjects, but lack the logical skills to figure out why a student keeps making the same kinds of errors in math. Or a teacher in some other subject area besides math may fail to understand statistics well enough to accurately interpret current events or a newspaper poll in classroom discussions, and may misteach students, to everybody's detriment.


On a broader scale, when educators as a group are weak in math, they may be pushing for public policies that are dead wrong, simply because they didn't do the math correctly. It's no wonder: educators are under tremendous pressure from special-interest groups such as their own unions, state and federal education bureaucracies, educational publishing companies, political groups, and others, all of whom want the schools to spend more money, and spend it on THEIR agendas. Those organizations spend beaucoup bucks to develop statistics which appear to "prove" the "need" for their programs in schools. If educators aren't "mathheads," it's easy for them to be duped, and then since the public loves schools and teachers so much, the public gets left with the bill for untold millions of dollars of unnecessary spending.


You see the math aversion of educators in the recent push for class-size reductions, which may make sense on paper but are actually tremendously expensive for no appreciable results, other than in kindergarten and first grade, and for our most disadvantaged and non-English speaking gradeschoolers. It's the same thing with the educators' promotion of costly year-round schooling and "free" laptop distribution, two other extremely costly ideas that the evidence suggests may even hurt the learning curve, not help it.


But math-avoiding educators don't analyze those issues on the basis of what numbers say. Instead, they act on their own hunches, intuition and opinions - which, of course, can very easily be wrong. There's a "disconnect" in many educators between how much things cost and how much they are going to help student achievement.


Widespread innumeracy is an explanation for why so much of what passes as education "research" is based on such poor math computation and statistical inaccuracies that it's basically worthless.


You don't keep a job in the business world very long if you make math mistakes, especially when you're handling other people's money. But in education, there's no way to patrol and correct innumeracy, so the students are stuck with it.


Better for public-policy makers to put pressure on teachers' colleges to ratchet up the math requirements . . . and the benefits for both the students and the public will add up.


Homework: Jay P. Greene's excellent book, Education Myths: What Special-Interest Groups Want You to Believe About Our Schools - And Why It Isn't So, goes a long way toward debunking the math myths that are behind many of the policies that are leading to gross overspending and underachievement in our schools.


By Susan Darst Williams Math 10 2008


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