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Topic: "The Real Scandal in American School Mathematics" by Anthony Ralston
Replies: 1   Last Post: May 27, 2010 4:16 AM

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Jonathan Groves

Posts: 2,068
From: Kaplan University, Argosy University, Florida Institute of Technology
Registered: 8/18/05
"The Real Scandal in American School Mathematics" by Anthony Ralston
Posted: May 27, 2010 3:14 AM
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Dear All,

Anthony Ralston of SUNY Buffalo had written the paper "The Real
Scandal in American School Mathematics," and it was published
in Education Week on April 27, 2005. A slightly edited copy of
this paper is available at
I had read this paper earlier tonight, and I find it to be a useful
paper that addresses a vital question about improving K-12 math
education that is, however, rarely asked: What exactly do we do about
the problems of teachers' declining understanding of mathematics
over the last fifty or so years? Can this problem be easily fixed
or not (assuming politics and selfish interests and other such garbage
does not get in the way)? If not, why not?

Ralston mentions that one reason the severity of teachers' bankrupt
understanding of mathematics continues to go unnoticed is that many
mathematicians do not want to be seen as teacher-bashers, as arrogant
jerks who like to belittle those who do not understand math as they do.
I'm sure there are exceptions, but I imagine this general principle
is most likely true since I don't hear many mathematicians speaking out
against this problem. Many mathematicians do tend to steer clear of
K-12 math education altogether either to avoid these controversies
with K-12 math education or because they want to remain as completely
focused on math research as much as possible. I don't remember where
I had read this, but I do remember reading from somewhere sometime
earlier this year that many high-class mathematicians consider math
education as the work of minor mathematicians who couldn't cut it in
math research. That is, math education is not the work of a "real

Ralston states evidence of the severity of the decline in teachers'
understanding of math: increasing numbers of math teachers without
a major or even a minor in math, alarming rates of math anxiety
among elementary school teachers, the study done by Liping Ma
and reported in her book "Knowing and Teaching Elementary
Mathematics." I had seen this book mentioned often enough that
I know I must get a copy when I can. This decline is certainly
well known, but apparently few people know how severe this decline
really is.

Ralston makes an excellent point that NCLB is also causing severe
damage to this problem because the law does not mention or implement
any programs to attract qualified teacher candidates to K-12 schools
and actually discourages qualified teacher candidates from even
considering teaching as a career because of all the crap this law
promotes by turning education and teachers' careers into a joke
(here, I use "qualified teacher candidate" to refer to anyone who
has at least the required understanding of the subject to teach
effectively in K-12, whether that person is considering teaching or
not). I can see why these people would not be attracted to teaching.
NCLB has turned K-12 teaching into almost a living hell, and the
reactions of most teachers confirm that. When I think about this
mess resulting from NCLB, I'm glad that I changed my mind about
teaching high school math. I would detest being forced to teach to
mindless tests and to pass slews of students in high school math
classes whose understanding of math is so low that they can't pass
even a fifth grade math test (forced in the sense that I would have to
do all this to keep my job, that is).

Ralston does mention that NCLB is not the only reason that teaching
as a career has gotten worse over the years. Even before NCLB,
benefits for teachers have declined, and workloads and stress have
increased. Though he doesn't mention this, I think it is also worth
mentioning that discipline and behavior have become much worse problems
among students in recent years. Many teenagers I have seen myself have
the kinds of attitude problems that I cannot stand. Such problems
do occur among some college students, but those problems are nowhere
as severe. The schools I do teach for do give me the right not to
tolerate such behavior. The Kaplan Math Center does not either, and
several students have been barred from tutoring because of their
highly inappropriate behavior (for instance, one student had called
one of the tutors a moron because she did not understand the business
or finance terminology the student was using); however, such behavior
rarely occurs. But the K-12 classroom is much different from that,
and I don't understand how the rights of a highly distruptive
student--one who clearly is making it difficult for the teacher to
teach and the other students to learn--supercedes the rights of
the teacher to teach and the other students to learn. If rights
conflict, the greater right is supposed to win: The rights of
those other students and the teacher are greater than that one
student's right to remain in class, especially when that one student
is clearly not respecting the rights of others. These behavior
problems among students and schools' ridiculous views of student
discipline are additional reasons why I'm glad I changed my mind
about teaching high school.

In short, this article leads to the vital question we need to
answer correctly as soon as possible: How can we attract more
mathematically talented people into K-12 teaching? Unless we can
find an answer that works, we will face an incredibly bad teacher
shortage even if we raise the standards for teacher training to
where they should be.

Jonathan Groves

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