Nothing Wasted Here

Tom Lehrer turned 80 last week. If you don’t know that name, then you have not enjoyed one of the truly great satirists of the 20th century.

I have a special place in my warped little brain for Lehrer. We are both math teachers, although there’s really not much to compare since he taught at Harvard and MIT and I certainly did not, but there’s nothing academic about this.

Lehrer’s high place in American geek culture is due to several wonderful recordings he made in the 60’s featuring songs which poked fun at everything from nuclear war to “new math“.

His song The Vatican Rag has been playing in my head this week with the news of the Pope’s visit to Washington all over the news media. I doubt the Catholic church approves but it’s still very funny.

The really unique part of his humor, and something that’s missing from most topical comedians today, is that Lehrer’s work is both intelligent and respectful of the intelligence of his audience.

Start with his album An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer for an excellent introduction to his terrifically warped sense of humor.

So, happy birthday Tom, and thanks for clearly demonstrating the intelligent design connecting science, music, and humor.

Picking Out The Good Ones

What makes a good math teacher?

That’s a question I was asking myself from the first day I started teaching the subject. I’m not sure I ever really came up with a good answer.

And, evidently, neither did the folks on the National Mathematics Advisory Panel according to a new report.

But when it came to drawing conclusions about the necessary skills and preparation of educators responsible for delivering that content, the report’s authors said much less is known.

On the one hand, effective math teachers have an impact on student achievement, the panel found. It cited a study showing that differences in the quality of teaching accounted for 12 percent to 14 percent of variation in students’ math achievement in elementary grades.

But the 90-page report also says it is hard to determine what credentials and training have the strongest effect on preparing math teachers to teach, and teach well. Research has not provided “consistent or convincing” evidence, for instance, that students of certified math teachers benefit more than those whose teachers do not have that licensure, it found.

Similarly, a weak connection exists between teachers’ college math coursetaking and the achievement of their students at the elementary level, though there was a stronger link between that educational background and high school achievement, the panel found.

While the creators of NCLB and others put a great deal of emphasis on teachers having solid knowledge of their subject matter (and little else), the writers of this study see a greater need for “mathematical knowledge for teaching”.

In other words, to be a good math teacher a person needs to know how to explain the math to kids, not necessarily all the deep dark corners of the subject.

Which means this could be the key to training a good math teacher. Or one of any subject.

There is a growing recognition of the need to give aspiring math teachers, particularly those who will teach in the early grades, college coursework that is tailored more specifically to working with students, rather than simply piling on more advanced math…

Maybe the politicians who write the rules will begin to understand that good teaching is less about holding the knowledge than the ability to explain it to an 11 year old.

Not Enough Basic Skills… Or Too Much?

Some college math professors believe that students are less prepared for their classes than they were a decade or two before.

No surprise there. Nor in the fact that they blame high schools.

But it’s the details of what they see as the cause that’s interesting.

Math professors in the Lehigh Valley laid the blame on integrated math programs that don’t emphasize basic skills, high-stakes testing and the push to give students higher-level math courses at increasingly younger ages.

“Many bright students are hurried through algebra and trigonometry courses on their way toward statistics and calculus,” said Marie Wilde, chairwoman of the mathematical and information sciences program at Cedar Crest College in Allentown.

“They arrive at college without the critical skills they should have spent much more time developing, rather than jumping prematurely into what has traditionally been considered college-level work.”

First of all, don’t let Jay Mathews see the part criticizing the “push to give students higher-level math courses at increasingly younger ages”. Remember, AP classes are the educational miracle drug.

More to the point, however, I doubt the problem is that students have spent too little time working on basic skills.

Considering that those rote processes are the primary focus of most standardized tests, and thus a large chunk of class time, I would argue that the kids have spent too much time on basic skills.

And not enough on the concepts needed to actually understand what the algorithms are used for and why they should be applied.

As to the basics skills desired by these professors, most of the students probably did “learn” them. But the knowledge was kept in their heads only long enough to pass the test.

They then expelled it, along with a large chunk of other trivia for which they had been offered no context and very little justification for why they should retain the information past graduation.