Tuesday, October 05, 2004

In the Middle

Little did she know when she commented on my previous post but Dr. H. made mention of one of my new pet issues: the teaching of math in the middle grades. As I've mentioned before, I never took regular middle school math, so I have precisely zero personal experience with it, so everything I say could be placed in the category of making things up: but hear me out.

My state certifies teachers for assorted grade ranges. I'm told that most middle school teachers get either a K-8 certification or a 7-12 certification. The former focuses mostly on the elementary grades and the latter almost exclusively on 9-12. And everyone knows that middle schoolers are strange creatures and the techniques for dealing with "little kids" or "big kids" will each only work some of the time. Only recently have they started encouraging prospective middle grades teachers to get a 5-8 certification. Do you know how much math you need to take to get a K-8 certification? However much you need to get a bachelor's degree from an accredited college or university. If you went to a fancy school like Dartmouth or Brown or somesuch, that would be zero. Sure, the students who get into that type of school usually have a decent math background, but there are probably schools that I haven't heard of that also require zero math courses to graduate.

People are talking about increasing the number of math courses that teachers need to take in order to be certified to teach math in grades 5-8. I'm not clear on whether this change has been made, is in the works, or is just being talked about. But the new requirement would mandate a lot of hours in math. More math, I'm in favor of it in principle -- but a look at the courses offered by the typical math department. The current options are terrible.

Few students at my school even qualify to enroll in the calculus (3 semesters)+diff eq track. It would be unreasonable torture to impose this upon people who want to teach math in grades 5-8. Would it be nice if future-teachers were graduated from high school with the skills necessary to take what used to be called "freshman calculus"? Sure. Remotely possible in the next few years? No way. And it's not like these are the core mathematical ideas that they'll need to be most familiar with.

Most courses below calculus are horrid. I will summarize our college algebra/business math track: Look at the formula. Watch me use the formula. You practice the formula. Next formula. Sure, the business math students take a course with the word "calculus" in its name, but I dare you to ask any of them "what's a derivative" and to keep a straight face when they answer.

If I were Queen, what would prospective 5-8 math teachers take? Well, I could see having some of them take college algebra (which is just a euphamism for "what you should have learned in 11th grade but didn't so now we will pack it into 14 weeks and you better learn it this time"), since most of the freshmen at my university don't know anything about lines and their equations or any of that type of stuff. It would be nice if they learned some right-triangle trig. And I'd like to see them take the statistics course that the psychology majors have to take. But the rest of the courses that these future teachers need are "lite" versions of the material that we typically restrict to math majors (more specifically, that we restrict to people who've suffered through three semesters of calculus). A little number theory and a touch of polynomial rings. Some geometry as it's taught at non-elite colleges. Maybe introductory combinatorics.

Some of this material is in the "math for elementary teachers" course that is taught at a lot of colleges. Some of it is in the gen-ed course that I teach, but my course is unusual. [Secret message to all math people: talk to your Key College rep and get a copy of The Heart of Mathematics by Burger and Starbird.] But the rest of the courses simply don't exist.