In today’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is the second of a four part series on the state of math education in Wisconsin and the US (I stole their title for this post) and it doesn’t paint a very rosy picture. Both the research and the writing are excellent, presenting an excellent overview of the problems and the proposals for fixing them. Part one of the series looks at the process of teaching math in public schools and details the arguments of supporters and critics on both sides of the debate. Part two deals with the quality of teachers and teacher training, focusing on programs designed to improve teachers skills.

There’s too much to summarize in this space (and they’re not finished) but I still want to include a couple of quotes that stand out for me.

The National Research Council, a non-profit organization affiliated with the National Academy of Sciences, asked in a 2002 report which side in the math wars is correct and answered:

Neither. Both are too narrow. When people advocate only one strand of proficiency, they lose sight of the overall goal. Such a narrow treatment of math may well be one reason for the poor performance of U.S. students in national and international assessments.

Math instruction cannot be effective if it is based on extreme positions. Students become more proficient when they understand the underlying concepts of math, and they understand the concepts more easily if they are skilled at computational procedures. U.S. students need more skill and more understanding along with the ability to apply concepts to solve problems, to reason logically and to see math as sensible, useful and doable. Anything less leads to knowledge that is fragile, disconnected and weak.

While curriculum attracts the most attention, some experts say the math struggle ought to focus more on how to improve the supply of teachers and the quality of teaching itself, especially in schools where students as a whole are doing poorly in math. Some say emphatically that the problem of weak performance in math has at least as much to do with weak teaching as with the materials being used.

Once teachers are in the classroom, the amount and quality of the training they get vary widely and often end up being fairly sparse. Many education advocates say that in other developed countries, teachers are given far more time to prepare for classes and to work individually and in groups on raising the level of what they do in class.

I’ll add some additional excerpts and comments after I’ve had the chance to read the other two parts. However, if you’re involved in math education – as an teacher, administrator, student or parent – the articles are well worth the time to read them in full.