Thursday, October 16, 2008

TEACHING HIGH SCHOOL MATH

Ted Nutting, Seattle Times - I'm a high-school math teacher in Seattle. When I hear Mark Emmert, president of the University of Washington, say that this state is "at the bottom in the production of scientists and engineers," and warn that our graduates "will be washing the cars for the people who come here for the best jobs," I know what the problem is. It's math. We are failing to educate our children in mathematics. I know how that came about, and what we can do about it. . .

I am the Advanced Placement calculus teacher at Ballard High School. . . I tell my students what they need to know, they do problems to understand how it works, and they demonstrate their knowledge and understanding through testing. . .

We at Ballard have by far the best AP calculus program in Seattle Public Schools, based on AP test scores. I have no special magnetism or charisma; I'm not a cult figure for teenagers. I have high standards and I require the students to work. If they don't work, they know they will probably flunk. But they do work, and I am proud of them. I also have the benefit of having an older textbook that doesn't fit the "reform math" model, and most of my students have had an excellent pre-calculus teacher the year before.

In most of our other math classes (and I doubt that Ballard is unique in this), we've tended to follow a "reform" model. We've passed students on from class to class; there is no meaningful threshold they must cross to enter a more-difficult class. Since we find that many students in our classes cannot do the work, we dumb down the courses. We say we are admitting unprepared students into our classes in order to "challenge" them.

But students should be challenged in the classes that they are qualified to take, not sent on to classes where they cannot do the work. Unfortunately, things are changing, even in our school's AP calculus classes: We're starting to admit unqualified students, and our program will soon begin to deteriorate. . .

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