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MATH: What's the Problem? — Text-only | Flash Special Report
Classroom Dynamics

‘Rithmetic may be the last of the three Rs, but mathematics is a subject that touches every family. Improving math education has been a topic of national focus on-and-off for as long as there has been formal schooling. As international assessment tests found U.S. students being outperformed by those in many other countries, a 2007 report, “Rising Above the Gathering Storm,” made improving math education key to improving the science and technology enterprise. Meanwhile, the National Mathematics Advisory Panel (NMP) diagnosed the delivery system for math education as being “broken and in need of repair.” A long list of recommendations highlighted the importance of research to guide effective teaching from the earliest grades, and algebra as a gateway subject to higher-order math learning. Among the voices in this discussion are two members of the NMP: Joan Ferrini-Mundy, the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) division director for the Division of Research on Learning in Formal and Informal Settings; and Deborah Loewenberg Ball, dean of the School of Education at the University of Michigan. They are joined by William Schmidt, university distinguished professor of education and statistics at Michigan State University.

WILLIAM SCHMIDT: I think the problem is that just we simply have not done an adequate job of teaching our children and so weíve done that for generations and so, therefore, adults say ďIím no good at math,Ē and thatís sort of okay. They think of it that way. Itís sort of funny and they communicate that to their kids and people think itís only if you really have a math gene, but thatís just so wrong. Other countries respect mathematics and they expect all kids to learn it to some basic level. Theyíre all not going to be math people, but they all can learn it to a basic level.

STUDENT: 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 Ė

DEBORAH LOEWENBERG BALL: Thatís very good. Youíre like Ė

DEBORAH LOEWENBERG BALL: I was a French major in college. In high school, I was fascinated with languages and humanities and social sciences and found my way toward elementary school teaching where, in fact, a course of math was one of the subjects I had to teach. Within a few years, I found that my ability to teach my own students math was less good than my ability to teach other subjects.

DEBORAH LOEWENBERG BALL: Youíre doing fine. You canít think of other ones?

STUDENT: What? Oh my gosh.

DEBORAH LOEWENBERG BALL: So, I began studying math at that point, once I was an elementary school teacher, and that essentially grew and launched an interest that Iíve had ever since, and the question about what is it about teaching young children mathematics that Ė what is the demands of the teacher?

DEBORAH LOEWENBERG BALL: I want to give you some directions for how to work on this. Youíre going to work in teams today and on your team Ė

DEBORAH LOEWENBERG BALL: Well, elementary math lab is first and foremost a program for schoolchildren in the area, and we deliberately designed this program to enroll students who are struggling in mathematics and we chose the age level of entering fifth graders who are about 10, because this is a key age at which children who begin to find math difficult or struggle with it really fall behind.

DEBORAH LOEWENBERG BALL: Itís first and foremost a laboratory in learning and in teaching.

DEBORAH LOEWENBERG BALL: I want you to write down the way youíd record it with multiplication and I also want you to write down or sketch the rectangle.

DEBORAH LOEWENBERG BALL: Another feature is that we gather really good records of the work across the time of the laboratory class. It runs for two weeks, every day for two and a half hours and during that period, we videotape with more than one camera everything thatís going on in the classroom. So, as a product of the laboratory, we have very high quality digital records that could be used for research purposes, for viewing by groups who arenít there live to create materials that could be used in teacher education elsewhere or in professional development.

JOAN FERRINI-MUNDY: One wonderful thing about the National Science Foundation is that weíve been funding work in mathematics education aimed at improving mathematics teaching and learning for more than 50 years, going back all the way to the post-Sputnik new math curriculum and studies that were done in those years. So, we really do have a wonderful cadre of experts who have been studying mathematics teaching and learning. Weíve been studying international questions about mathematics education, and been developing and testing curricula and who have been working with teachers to improve the preparation and continuing growth of teachers.

JOAN FERRINI-MUNDY: Iíd like to make a pitch for the importance of research about mathematics teaching and learning because everybody took math. Itís possible to think that everybody Ė everybody does, in fact, have strong opinions about how math ought to be taught and how math ought to be best learned and so forth, and that needs to be supplemented and examined more fully, I think, through systematic research that can look at questions of teaching and learning, that can look at the ways in which certain materials might impact certain learners and so on. So, Iím very much supportive of the idea that interdisciplinary research that brings together mathematicians, scientists, mathematics educators, psychologists, cognitive scientists, statisticians, teachers, thatís going to be part of the key to being able to solve some of our mathematics learning problems. Current reports and documentation would suggest that we are at risk relative to competitiveness and innovation, that we want to be sure we have a well prepared scientific and technological workforce and mathematics, of course, is at the center of that, but I would also add to this that itís important to have a mathematically literate populous and citizenry, people who can make sound decisions in their daily personal lives who can read and understand issues about health that depend upon statistics and mathematical ideas. So, again, both in terms of our technological and scientific competitiveness as well as our everyday life, I think math is important.