Monday, July 4, 2011

Blaming children for their ignorance, IV: the role of teachers

Perhaps most steadfast in blaming children and their families, rather than K12 instruction, for children's ignorance, are K12 teachers. Here's what one high school math teacher commented on one of Joanne Jacobs's recent posts on math education:
In most cases, it’s not because they were poorly taught, but because they didn’t
have the cognitive ability to learn the subject properly.
Her evidence?
High school and middle school math teachers have to pass fairly rigorous
competency tests, and have for years.
To which one commenter replied:
Ah, but not elementary school math teachers. They get minimal training in math. As for their mathematical aptitudes, what I witnessed when I audited a math methods class at a highly reputed education school was a majority of students who were extremely weak in math. Many, for example, confessed to getting help from their fathers, husbands, and boy friends on the weekly problems (which were at about the level of 4th-6th grade Singapore Math).

It is essential to remember that it’s in elementary school the problems begin! This is true even at the most advantaged schools. Take, for example, the joint collaboration with the above ed school and the lcoal school district. The existence of this school has caused real estate prices in its catchment area nearly to double. Because it’s perceived as a great place to teach (among other perks, class size is capped well below the city-wide class size limits), many teachers apply. And the school has site selection privileges, so its principal can hand-pick the teachers. So you'd think that every elementary school teacher who gets a job at this school would have a good grasp of math.

You would be wrong.  Some teachers have been hired after confessing during their interviews (which parents can attend) that they hate math and aren’t good at it.
The school has also picked a terrible math curriculum (Investigations in Number, Data, and Space).
As a result, only those children who are getting outside tutoring in math are mastering the fundamentals of arithmetic that are prerequisites for succeeding in algebra.
Given how terrible things are at the elementary level even in some of our better schools, how can we even begin to know what the mathematical capacities are of those children who don’t have access to outside tutoring? No child should be taught math by anyone who says they hate math and/or aren't good at it. No child taught by such a teacher should be labeled as "lacking the cognitive ability to learn the subject properly."

That said, there are still plenty of mathematically capable teachers out there. Given how any resistance to the curriculum by teachers counts as potentially job-terminating "insubordination," how much can we blame teachers for the low performance of those students who don't have access to outside tutoring?

Indeed, given how terrible the Reform Math (and other Constructivist) curricula are, how can we even begin to know what the teaching skills are of those teachers who don't have access to alternative curricula?

If we're looking for who's responsible for students' ignorance, we should start with those who create, fund, promote, and mandate the various incarnations of Reform Math and other Constructivist curricula (Balanced Literacy, anyone?), along with those responsible for the dumbed-down, No Child Left Behind tests that keep all this securely in place.


Obi-Wandreas, The Funky Viking said...

When children enter school not knowing what a letter is or what a number is, have no support from home (not even a spot to do homework), are allowed to run rampant disruptively with no real consequences, then it matters very little what the curriculum is.

The fault lies not with the children, but for those responsible for them. Parents ultimately have the responsibility to make sure that children behave and are learning. Administration in schools has the responsibility to make sure that poor behavior is not tolerated, and that poor performance is dealt with, not ignored.

Herein lies the problem for teachers. We don't have the guts to tell parents "Yes, little Johnny tries very hard, but I can't do a thing for him when spending all my time trying to get little Timmy and Billy to sit down and STFU." We also don't have the guts to publicly say "Downtown continues to pressure us to keep suspensions and retentions low, not to keep behavior and performance high, causing much to simply be swept under the rug."

Throughout this, we continue to complain about funding, saying that levels which are astronomically high are far too low. We don't come out and say "Yes, there's a ton of money coming in, but we see scant little of it coming into our buildings. Wanna check downtown to see where it's going?"

It continues to frustrate me how few people can see what the problems really are, even though they're staring us right in the face. As a result, we have two vocal sides talking right past each other, ignoring the problems at hand.

Learn Things Web said...

Student achievement is also a problem at schools that cater to largely advantaged children, so the problem goes beyond children coming to school ill-prepared to learn. Most parents that I talk to who send their kids to largely middle class schools say that the schools are way too easy and unchallenging. These are involved parents who spend time supplementing what their children learn in school.

It is a fact that most elementary teachers don't like math and aren't good at it. According to a study I read, 70% of middle school math teachers and 30% of high school math teachers have no math background at all. How can even a priviliged child learn math if most of his or her elementary school teachers hate the subject and their middle school math teacher actually has a background in PE? As bad as the numbers are for middle and high school math teachers, they are even worse for science teachers.

Lsquared said...

Lets not be too hard on the elementary teachers: they have a fantastically difficult job teaching all subjects to all children. While I think the Chinese model of having specifically math teachers for math in elementary would help a lot, most of the elementary teachers I've had contact with are doing good things with math in their classes--it may not be exactly what I'd do, and it may not be the best possible approach, but the teachers are trying to do well at teaching math along with everything else, and they are doing a lot of good things along with the mediocre and bad things.

And lets not fool ourselves either into thinking that all children have the same talents. There are some children who, no matter what way the teacher teaches, are not going to be able to learn the math (or reading or writing) that their peers can and are. Some of them will hit a brain-growth-spurt, and they'll pick it up in a year or two, and some of them won't, and I doubt that there's any way to tell for sure which children are in which category.

Lsquared said...

I take it back--the person you were quoting was doing some teacher bashing, but you weren't. As usual, you were carefully directing your criticism to the reform math curricula (who certainly deserve criticism).

Learn Things Web said...

We don't have enough math teachers in middle or high schools. So, there is no way we could put one or two or three in every elementary school. A better solution would be to have education schools teach future elementary teachers the actual math they will teach in the classroom.

Elementary teachers often don't properly understand the math they are teaching. They do poorly on tests of the math they teach. If future teachers were properly trained in elementary level math in college they would do a much better job teaching it.

Teacher training needs to change. Future teachers in many other countries attend dedicated teacher training colleges where they have to learn much of the material they will teach. We really need to do this in the US.