Friday, January 4, 2013

College Math Prof And Why U.S. Education May Be Failing

Darryl Yong's recent lengthy article on his "adventures in teaching high school math" ought to make any pedagogue sit up and take notice - and certainly U.S. high school administrators!

Yong in his article (Notices of the American Mathematical Society, Vol. 59, No. 10, p.1408) admits he did "something very unusual for a university mathematician" - he taught high school math during the 2009-2010 academic year. This article  "A Professor Goes to High school to Learn About Teaching Math"  is hilarious in many respects, but also poignant in revealing the deficiencies in our schools and why perhaps U.S. kids can't compete with students in Singapore, China, Sweden or Norway.

Yong originally presented his findings in a series of blogs but which the AMS Notices piece basically distills. First some preliminaries on his school before going to his findings. He was hired at a California High School under a CA state bill (859), whereby visiting faculty permits were issued. His school had 1,100 students of which 40% were "English language learners", while "80% qualified for free or reduced meals, and 85 percent were Hispanic".  He also notes that in 2009 only 3% were deemed proficient on the Algebra I California Standards test. The year Yong arrived, he taught Algebra I, Algebra II, Geometry and a "math intervention class", i.e. a special additional class to tutor struggling students.

A number of his discoveries during his time of teaching high school:

1) He had to learn not to take personally things that students said or did to him. Assisting him in this was the knowledge that "my students' behaviors in class were often a result of grave personal issues."

2) Blame is pervasive.

Yong notes that university math teachers often blame high school teachers for poor math preparation. Meanwhile, high school math teachers blame elementary schools for the poor preparation and kids who end up in HS with few math skills. And everywhere the blame lands on "bad teachers" with the clarion call: "We need to get rid of bad teachers!". But Yong himself observes: "I have yet to meet a teacher who willingly wanted to be an ineffective instructor- every teacher I know had a desire to do a good job."

If any blame had to be cast it was usually on the school administrators and Yong notes his school "was poorly run." At the same time he qualifies this by adding that they "didn't always have the resources to do the job well."

3) Enormous confusion emerged arising from shrinking budgets.

Yong discloses that in the first few weeks massive dislocation and confusion was evident, after many teachers were laid off in the summer of 2009. Also because of this it was weeks before his employment papers were processed. He began teaching, supposedly on Sept. 10,  but didn't receive any class rosters until October. There were consequences and disruptions as a result of this delay.

His blog entry for Monday, Sept. 21, 2009, starts: "There are 29 students in my 3rd period class. Hooray! Unfortunately, 30 minutes earlier the assistant principal told me it was supposed to be an Algebra I class but all the kids were there for Geometry!"

He adds that by the time things finally got settled, only 3 minutes remained for his actual (correct) class!

4) Though a very able Teacher, Yong felt ineffective most of the year

He eventually traced much of his lack of success on poor student self-concept. He goes on to refer to the work of John Hattie who found that the "variable that correlates most strongly with student achievement is self- concept." Hattie's book synthesizes over 800 meta-analytic research papers on education covering over 15,000 journal articles to determine the variables that most strongly correlate to student achievement.

Yong (and Hattie) define self-concept as "a person's sense of 'self' in a particular domain"

He adds (p. 1411):

"The difference betwen self-esteem and self-concept is that the former is an overall view of oneself whereas self-concept is domain specific."

In other words, if you have a self-concept of yourself as a math guru or genius then that defines how you perceive your worth in that (math) domain.  Yong goes on to notes that "self concept is shaped by prior academic achievement and one's beliefs about who has mathematical skill and what it means to be 'good' at mathematics. He goes on to say that "95% of the cases when a student was disruptive was the result of the student not understanding what to do or how to do something."

After that, he began to see the importance of addressing students' self-concepts and prepared special exercises to help them.

5) Teaching is far less respected as a profession than it ought to be.

Here Yong relates how often each day teachers receive messages, overt and covert, on how much they are valued as professionals. This includes how teachers are addressed by parents, administrators, the process of signing in and out of work every day..."down to the inconvenience of not being given a key to the school office (where the photo-copier and paper supplies are stored).

But Yong asserts that the "most disturbing messages came from the weekly professional development meetings". (Which all teachers had to attend) Most such meetings entailed a handout with nonsensical questions (in the context of the time allotted) which the teachers were supposed to address, answer.  To quote Yong (p. 1412) for the first question on one handout: "WOW! Where to Begin? First of all #1 doesn't make any sense! Am I supposed to respond to one question or the other?"

The actual question was: What 'works'? vs "What is your personal philosophy of teaching?'

(Perhaps one of the most idiotic of questions ever to appear at a teacher's development meeting!)

6) There exists a divergence between the written curriculum and 'assessed curriculum'

In this area, Yong discovered though there can be wonderful aspects, say to an "intended' or "written" Algebra I curriculum, they often don't see the light of day in manifesting because the teacher has to deliver on the "assessed curriculum" - as determined by periodic state assessments.  To cite one example of Yong's (p. 1414):

"For example, there was a moment during the year when I had to decide whether to teach my students to blindly follow a recipe to use the quadratic formula (since they weren't ready to understand the derivation of that formula) or continue along the path set by our text book and let them get all of those questions on the periodic assessment wrong. I chose the former and to this day feel horrible about it!"

Make no mistake that Yong's article and blogs shed much needed light on aspect of the U.S. public school system that too many don't wish to see, or address. A lot of it comes down to money, but a lot of it also comes down to societal disrespect....both for the hard working teachers in our public schools, as well as for many of the students themselves.

Until we give more respect to teachers as professionals, and assist students in finding a more positive self-concept, any other corrections to the educational system (including the plan to add 80 hrs. of instruction a year in some 15 states) may all be for naught.

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