America must overhaul its inferior math education if it is to produce math-literate adults for the technological 21st century, a math educator told a Utah teachers convention Friday.
"We cannot keep our school system the way it was in the 19th century while moving into the 21st century and expect our children to survive," said Stephen S. Willoughby, University of Arizona professor of mathematics.Willoughby spoke at the Utah Council of Teachers of Mathematics workshop. The workshop was one of dozens in different disciplines held in conjunction with the annual Utah Education Association convention.
The mathematics professor, who has taught all levels from first grade through graduate school, is senior editor of the innovative K-8 math textbook series "Real Math." He is also a member of the U.S. Commission on Mathematical Instruction and on the national advisory board of Square One TV, the Children's Television Workshop mathematics program.
Willoughby said math education can no longer concentrate on just the basic math skills. "We can buy a $5 calculator for that," he said.
For a high school graduate to be able to continually learn and adapt in a rapidly changing, technological world, students must learn to communicate clearly, form and solve problems, understand which problems are reasonable to solve and recognize which problems are beyond their capacity to solve, the educator said.
Willoughby said changes are necessary in teaching, textbooks and testing, and commitment is needed from both teachers and the public.
Teachers must do a better job, but they need help from society, he continued. They are required to teach too many hours, don't have enough time for professional advancement or to work with individual students and are saddled with working extra jobs to supplement their incomes, he said.
He said the Japanese educational system has been hailed by the news media lately, but it is never pointed out that Japanese teachers, who work six days a week, still teach only 16 hours a week. U.S. teachers, on the other hand, work five days but teach 25 hours.
Japanese teachers have larger classes, usually about 50 students, but they aren't confronted with the discipline problems prevalent in U.S schools, Willoughby said.
He asked some Japanese educators, at an international math conference, what they would do if a Japanese student misbehaved in class.
Willoughby said they responded that rarely happens, but when it does, the entire family works to solve the problem. "The parents, the grandparents, the brothers and the sisters would impress upon the child the need to pay attention in school, that his entire future depended upon it."
He told how a Soviet teacher must undergo a rigorous education, including graduate school and a three-year internship, before becoming a teacher. The Soviets are able to attract first-rate scholars into teaching because the average teacher's salary is almost double those of other college-educated workers.
The math educator complained that math curricula, particularly textbooks, are unchallenging. He reported that while 60 percent of the math material is new to first-graders, only 10 to 20 percent is new to eighth-graders. Then, in ninth grade, the students are introduced to 60 percent new material again and they do poorly because they've become unaccustomed to learning new concepts.
He believes in an integrated, K-12 program that introduces math concepts from such areas as algebra, geometry and statistics in kindergarten. Math textbooks are also weak in offering the games and activities that teachers can use to make math exciting for youngsters.
The poor quality of math textbooks is not the publishers' fault. "Publishers publish what sells," he said.
The problem lies with how textbooks are selected. He said it's usually left to a small committee of teachers, who must squeeze textbook selection into an already full schedule, and they tend to choose the familiar. The result is the poorest books end up in the classroom, he said.
Willoughby also said the other major obstacle to innovative math instruction is that teachers teach to the standardized tests. In some states, he continued, the problem has been compounded by legislatures requiring minimal competency testing.
"Minimal competency testing tends to produce what it says - minimal competency. What I would like to see is maximum competency," Willoughby said.