Illinois math teaching doesn't add up
August 1, 1991
A piece prompted by the news that less than a third of Illinois' eighth-graders were being taught math by teachers who had even an undergraduate major in the subject.
Parents wouldn't dream of sending their children to a plumber to have their teeth filled but they willingly send them to English majors to learn their fractions.
There I was, standing in line at Osco's. The store's computerized cash registers had crashed, leaving the hapless high schoolers who were running the checkout lanes to calculate purchase totals and tax and to make change by hand. A man in front of me—the kind of guy who enjoyed pulling the wings off butterflies as a boy, probably—paid for his forty-six-cent purchase by handing the clerk two quarters and a penny. She looked as if she was going to cry.
No one who has watched our young struggle with the simple mathematics of making change can have been surprised therefore by the results of the most recent National Assessment Governing Board's survey of math skills. Fewer than half the high school seniors tested in thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia had mastered eighth grade math. Only five percent of them could do the math expected of kids their age who live in the more advanced nations.
When it comes to teaching math, U.S. methods clearly don't add up. The survey especially disappointed taxpayers who recall that the public schools undertook a back-to-the-basics movement in math teaching nearly a decade ago. Alas, nothing sets back U.S. public education more than attempts to move it forward. The back-to-basics movement stressed rote memorization at the expense of mathematical reasoning. So rare is the ability to think and count at the same time that a kid who ranks in the 89th percentile in computational skills on one of the popular standardized tests and the 91st percentile in "concepts and applications" will rank in the 92nd percentile in terms of his combined score.
Most of the experts interviewed by the radio talk shows to Explain What It All Means insisted that our teaching methods are out of date. They did not explain why, if methods are the problem, Asian students taught in the same ways tend to do better than whites or blacks or Hispanics in math. Or why, if math teaching methods haven't changed in twenty years, student performance has.
Our approach to teaching math is not out of date so much as it is out of touch. A public school system dedicated to the idea that the point of a general education is getting a job as a clerk has imbued us all with the notion that the point of mathematics is getting an answer rather than understanding a process. Math is about relationships, not calculations—something that comes as news to all those kids who looked like Einsteins when it came to memorizing multiplication facts but were revealed as mathematical morons when they hit algebra.
"Out of date" is the preferred explanation of our education professional because it sounds better than "incompetent." Teaching takes more than reading exercises out of a textbook, no matter what the teachers' unions say. One reason so few of our teachers chose to major in math is that they, like most Americans who graduated from traditional schools, grew up hating it—a feeling most of them no doubt convey unmistakably to their students.
Illinois's professional educators were quick to defend the state's school establishment against imputations of incompetence. One state school bureaucrat blamed the state's poor ting a showing in the survey (twenty-second out of thirty-eight) on the black kids living in places like Chicago's South Side. He pointed out that the top-scoring states like Minnesota do not have sizable inner-city black ghettos whose students are notorious for school administrators' reputations by dragging down test averages.
But while kids living in what the test-givers call "disadvantaged urban" areas of Illinois scored only 236 out of a possible 500 points on the test (47 percent), the "advantaged urban" kids (a group that includes residents of our posher suburbs) scored only 281 (56 percent). The latter result hardly seems worth bragging on, since it means that Illinois's most able student group could not top the best state average.
Robert Leininger, Illinois school superintendent, has said that teaching kids math will require more money for in-service teacher training and a "restructuring [of] the state's school recognition process." It will also require the provision of what he called "appropriate learning tools for classroom use." Let us hope that among those tools will be teachers who know what they're teaching about. Less than a third of Illinois's eighth graders are being taught math by teachers who have even an undergraduate major in the subject. (We went back to the basics only to find that most teachers aren't prepared to teach them.) Parents wouldn't dream of sending their children to a plumber to have their teeth filled but they willingly send them to English majors to learn their fractions.
It would seem simple enough for the state to tell school boards that they will lose their accreditation if they don't hire people to teach math who actually know something about it. But as we are constantly being told, these are issues so complicated that only trained educational professionals can understand them. ●