Crisis in Math Education
By the late 1980s, the shortcomings of traditional mathematics teaching reached epic proportions in America. This weakness was illuminated in the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS, formerly known as the Third International Mathematics and Science Study). Both of these assessments painted a troubling portrait of the average mathematics student in American schools. The NAEP reported that only half of our nation’s 17-year-olds were able to successfully solve mathematics problems on the middle school level. Even of more concern was the TIMSS statistic that 1.5 million high school juniors and seniors were unable to perform the basic mathematical operations necessary for daily living let alone for so many of today’s technologically influenced occupations. Thus, in comparison to its overseas neighbors and major economic competitors, America found itself woefully behind in producing a new generation of mathematically proficient youngsters. An even greater disparity was found on the home front between low-income and minority students from inner-city school districts and the more economically advantaged students in nonurban areas. These discouraging assessments presented an unprecedented challenge for our nation’s mathematics teachers. Nationwide, a severe mathematics teacher shortage meant a dearth of qualified mathematics teachers, and the damage done to the school system was evident.
Steps were taken in the 1990s to remedy the situation and some progress was made. However, the performance gap separating Caucasian students from African-American and Hispanic students remained. The mathematics teacher shortage continued as well, forcing schools to hire uncertified, and sometimes unqualified, mathematics teachers to fill the void. These stopgap methods were implemented most often in low-income areas of the country, thus producing a recursive malaise. Given the societal change of providing all students a proper academic education, it was time to reevaluate the problem and revolutionize the way mathematics was taught in the public school system.
A fresh light on the problem began to shine in 2000 with analytical reports issued by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM). The crux of the NCTM’s message was that the mathematics difficulties facing America’s public school students could only be solved with a collaborative effort among teachers, parent/ guardians, and students. The NCTM also called for raising the expectations to lower the achievement gap and reverse the defeatist attitude that American students could not compete on an international level when it came to mathematics.
These days, there is legitimate room for optimism. Besides having a solid, national plan in place that seeks to remedy the problem from the ground up, the latest assessment results have seen positive spikes in scores. In 2004, mathematics-assessment scores have risen across the board and the achievement gap between Caucasian and minority students narrowed. By all measures, much work is left to be done, but the national attitude adjustment vis-à-vis mathematics is in its infancy stage and the future looks far brighter than it did just a decade ago.
© ______ 2006, Allyn & Bacon, an imprint of Pearson Education Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. The reproduction, duplication, or distribution of this material by any means including but not limited to email and blogs is strictly prohibited without the explicit permission of the publisher.
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