Too many teachers can’t do math, let alone teach it

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MARGARET WENTE | Columnist profile | E-mail

From Thursday’s Globe and Mail
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Is your kid struggling with math? Is she flustered by fractions and laid low by long division? Here’s a secret: Her teacher may be struggling, too.

An alarming number of elementary-school teachers are so uncomfortable with math, they can’t teach it properly. This means that more and more students are arriving at university without having grasped the basics.

Across the country, university math professors report that the math skills of students who are studying to become teachers are generally abysmal. Basic skills such as adding fractions or calculating percentages are frequently beyond them. “If you don’t know math, you can’t teach math,” says Anne Stokke, a math professor at the University of Winnipeg who has launched a petition to raise the standards.

In Manitoba, education students often arrive at university with no more than what’s called “consumer math,” which is what you take in high school if you can’t do real math. To qualify as teachers, they need only one university-level math course – not nearly enough to make up for years of neglect. Even teachers who aim to specialize in high-school math only need to take a few basic courses. “As it stands, I don’t think they come out of university with the proper background to teach mathematics to kids either in elementary school or in high school,” Fernando Szechtman, a math professor at the University of Regina, told the CBC.

You might think that the nation’s faculties of education – the institutions that teach the teachers – would be concerned about this problem. After all, their job is to ensure that teachers know their stuff by the time they’re unleashed on the classroom.

But this concept of teacher training is pathetically behind the times. Today’s faculties of education have much loftier goals in mind. According to them, their main job is to sensitize our future teachers to issues of social justice and global inequality.

“Classes in elementary schools have complex human interactions that involve political, racial, economic and gender issues,” writes Cecilia Reynolds, the dean of education at the University of Saskatchewan. Her faculty is now considering whether to make the math course an elective – meaning that future teachers wouldn’t have to demonstrate any proficiency at all. She thinks math training should be more child-focused, “taking into consideration if that child is aboriginal, if that child has autism, whether that child ate a breakfast that morning.” Her own professional interests are in gender relations, equity and social justice.

Dr. Reynolds is a product of the OISE school of pedagogy, by far the most influential in Canada. And improving student achievement through effective teaching methods is not a priority for the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. It has a research and advocacy arm, the Centre for Urban Schooling, that’s designed to connect it with schools in inner cities. As part of its commitment to “social justice and equity for all students,” the centre “works collaboratively on education projects that challenge power relations based on class, race, gender language, sexuality, religion, ethnicity and ability in all aspects of education both formal and informal.” If only it were interested in math.

Unfortunately, the people who educate the educators sound like the wacky wing of the NDP. Here’s Fern Snart, the dean of education at the University of Alberta: “To educate students beyond the superficial,” she writes, “we must engage them in transformational processes and deep thinking such that they understand the Western position of privilege that is often reflected in issues of diversity, power, and justice, and that they move to an internalization of responsibility related to this privilege.”

No wonder little Emma doesn’t know her times tables. She’s way too busy learning how her Western position of privilege entrenches gender relations. Or something like that.

Of course, the current math curriculum is no help, either. It’s long on “discovery” and short on practice and problem-solving. “They don’t seem to want the kids to practise any more,” says Prof. Stokke, who runs an after-school math club for 12-year-olds. But the biggest problem is that too many teachers simply don’t know the subject. “You wouldn’t send your child for piano lessons to somebody who can’t play the piano,” she says. It’s so obvious – to everyone but the people who educate the educators.