Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The School Year Starts Again

School has begun and the education buzz starts anew.

Judy Mousley - Ed., President of the Mathematics Education Research Group of Australasia [MERGA], was a guest writer this week for the Mathematics in Australia blog.

From reading her post it sounds like the issues with mathematics education in Australia (or more widely 'Australasia') are similar to the issues in the U.S. They have MERGA and we have the NMAP [National Mathematics Advisory Panel].

It occurs to me as I read her post, that we are all looking for better ways to teach mathematics: We need better trained teachers, we need to force all students in the 8th grade to take Algebra, we need to teach concept, we need to teach algorithms, we need to teach students to memorize their time tables in elementary school, we need to stop teaching rote mathematics, on and on.

I have written about some of these issues in this blog. But several recent events in my daily travels have forced me to rethink these issues.

I saw a friend, and former colleague, recently. He is one of those dynamic teachers that engages people old or young. His field is history and he is brilliant. Because of his intellect and quick wit he might be better suited to teaching high school or junior college, but at the time we worked in the same district together, he was teaching 7th grade social studies. Then he moved out of the area and I didn't see him again for several years. When we reconnected, he told me a sad story. Last year he taught in a district that shall remain unnamed. Here is his story as I recall it:
The teacher upon reaching the second floor saw a girl hanging a boy out of the window by his ankles. Not wanting the girl to panic, lest she drop the kid on his head, the teacher said something to the effect of, "What the heck are you doing? Bring that kid back in the building." And she did. Then he wrote her a referral.

That night the girl went home and raked something sharp and cutting, like barbed wire, across her forearm. The next morning she came marching into the school with her parents, making accusations that the teacher had mauled her.

When the administrators looked up the incident report they couldn't find one because the girl had lied about her name. The parents left. No charges against the teacher were filed. My friend quit his job and left the teaching profession at the end of the term.

He didn't think it was safe to teach anymore. Not because he was afraid for his physical well-being, but because it is so easy for a child to bring a false accusation against a teacher, ruining his or her ability to seek employment, or worse, landing a teacher in jail.

What a loss to the teaching profession and to all of the students who could have benefited from the talent of this teacher.

The next story...

I recently purchased something on Craig's List and drove out of town to fetch the item. It turned out that the seller was also a teacher; high school English.
Although he was a new teacher this year, recently credentialed, he quit the profession.

He is planning to return to college to perhaps get his PhD., so that he will be qualified to teach at the college level.

Why did he leave the profession after just one year? Because he was utterly devastated at having to fail so many students because the students were not up to the task, or refused to work.

And then of course we have the recent story of the teachers in Harold, TX being able to carry guns. Why? Because of the fear of a Columbine-like situation occurring at the school.

So while we are looking to tweak the education system, which is nothing new, the teenage culture has changed immensely making it more difficult every year for teachers to do their jobs.

The findings of NMAP in the U.S. (and probably MERGA in Australia) are not going to change mathematics education significantly because the report does not address what is at the root of the problem.

Ethics Have Eroded

A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon this world.
Albert Camus

Values have changed and people are more self-absorbed than ever. This is devastating, especially for teenagers who, as a group, tend to be self-absorbed to begin with. It's all about you!

If a child is failing in school, it is the teacher’s fault… and all of these reports are pointing in that direction since much of the focus is on what teachers need to do to improve. However, children are failing in math, in large part, because math takes work and kids don’t want to work that hard to think. On a broad cultural level, children are not being made to think.

If a teacher offers a challenging course and some students fail to get good grades, the teacher is put at risk because parents complain (of course it couldn’t be the child’s fault). The shameful irony being that since standardized test scores have become the measure of a teacher's success, the rigorous teacher, the one with the highest performing students, will also be the teacher most scrutinized.

Children have been empowered and will threaten teachers with language such as, ‘I will get you fired’, falsely implicate a teacher such as described above, or even falsely claim that the teacher has made sexual advances. Kids lie. Good teachers are fleeing the profession because of these risks and attitudes. There is even an organization in the U.S. called NAPTA (National Association for the Prevention of Teacher Abuse) which was founded for these very reasons.

When the culture changes to one that expects children to be respectful and responsible, to one that values telling the truth instead of getting away with lying, to one that thinks that math is important and praises the teachers that work hard to help students understand math, then we will have students that are more successful in math. I am not optimistic.

The time is always right to do what is right.
Martin Luther King, Jr.

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