Wednesday, May 12, 2010

A Chinese "Marshall Plan" for U.S. Math Instruction?

An article in last week's New York Times describes a teacher exchange program in which teachers from China work "for up to three years in American schools, with their salaries subsidized by the Chinese government."  As the Times explains, "China wants to teach the world its language and culture."

And, in this age of Chinese ascendency, there's certainly a great demand among American parents and educators alike for Chinese instruction, ideally by native Chinese speakers.

But there's another way in which these same Chinese exchange teachers can help us, and that relates to the growing demand for qualified math teachers.  While there's been, for decades, a dearth of k12 teachers who are sufficiently good at k12 math to teach it well, Reform Math is only making matters worse: educating (or miseducating) a new generation of students who lack even the most basic mathematical literacy and fluency.  In not too many years, some of those same students will become math teachers.

Those who have become concerned about what's going on have found a solution in one of the highly successful math curricula used in East Asia: the only one written in English, namely, Singapore Math. Many parents, for example, are home-schooling or after-schooling their children using this curriculum.  Some schools have even tried adopting it. And those who use it have generally found it highly effective.  Where Singapore Math has failed in this country, and where schools have abandoned it, appears to be in cases where teachers lacked the math background necessary to understand the curriculum. For Singapore Math is a much more challenging curriculum than Reform Math, and requires a deeper understanding of math than perhaps the majority of American elementary school math teachers have.

Here's where China can once again come to our aid.  Chinese k12 math teachers are much better trained in math than their American counterparts are.  The curriculum used in Mainland China (as with East Asian math programs generally) is quite similar to Singapore Math.  If we could encourage large numbers of exchange teachers from China to not only teach Chinese, but also teach Singapore Math, we might be able to reverse the alarming course we've set for ourselves.

It's unclear, however, whether the Chinese government would be as willing to subsidize math instruction as it is to subsidize Chinese instruction.


Barry Garelick said...

Good idea; the only problem is, the U.S. educrats would object to what they perceive as learning by rote, and the lack of critical thinking skills.

Niels Henrik Abel said...

I bet it never occurs to educrats that one reason why math people stay away in crowds from teaching is because of the pointless insistence on educational indoctrination as the only path to certification. As long as the powers that be care more about certification than qualification, we'll continue to have shortages of competent math (and science, too, for that matter) teachers.

(Wonder if they'd demand the Chinese jump through all the educratic hoops to get certified to teach public K-12? I don't really see the Chinese agreeing to that.)

S Goya said...

Barry, As an American math teacher with substantial experience teaching math in China, I can tell you Chinese teachers spend significant time on concept-building even though they do not generally use manipulatives, and Chinese students simply do not lack critical thinking skills; they have them in spades. However, stereotypes are very comforting.

S Goya said...

There are two kinds of Singapore math, the real Singapore math used in Singapore, and the US version adapted for the US market. The US version is a pale imitation of the real thing.