Tuesday, January 15

Middle School Muddle: Middle schools and math

Prospective and current middle school parents might want to question math curriculums more aggressively. What topics are covered and what kind of background and training does your child’s math teacher have?

Chances are the answer to both questions could be not enough.

A new study, “Mathematics Teaching in the 21st Century,’’ by Michigan State University researcher and Professor William H. Schmidt, reminded me why I should be paying more attention to math issues during middle school tours.

All too often, middle schools offer an unfocused curriculum taught by unprepared educators who can't help middle school kids make the transition from arithmetic to real mathematics, Schmidt's study found.

Teachers in five other countries are more prepared to teach math than middle school teachers in the United States, the study says.

Schmidt believes the existence of a coherent and challenging math curriculum should be a deciding factor for judging the quality of a middle school. Kids who don’t get the math they need will have trouble with math in high school and won’t get very far, he warns.

Any parent touring middle schools in New York City can quickly discern wide variation in the way math is taught. Some schools offer more and push students to learn high-level math, like the well regarded NEST+M, which offers a challenging program of Singapore math. Some middle schools provide Regents-level math and others don't.

School of the Future offers a “curriculum map’’ for 7th grade, promising “a linguistic/real life approach to mathematics.’’ One school I toured handed out a sheet noting that math is part of the 6th-grade curriculum; another simply said it offers “high-quality instruction,’’ without further explanation.

It's easy to get confused and skip the math questions if you don't know what to ask.

That's one reason Schmidt has long pushed for specific content standards laying out what every child is expected to learn and know by every grade in mathematics. If such standards existed nationally, parents would know what to expect. The standards would inform teacher training in math, he says.

“It’s incumbent on education schools and on our society to deem math education important enough to have such standards,’’ Schmidt told me during an interview about his study last week.

“It’s logical,’’ he explains. “With clear standards, you would have the whole system organized instead of arbitrary and hit and miss.’’

If you follow Schmidt’s logic, choosing a middle school with a particularly strong art or music program should not mean sacrificing math education. Each and every middle school would offer similar math curriculums with properly trained teachers.

Parents who want to know more about math requirements can consult the New York State math standards, which describe should be taught in each grade. That they are somewhat confusing to follow comes as no surprise to Schmidt.

“The problem is the standards are not very accessible to parents,’’ Schmidt says. “And they can be so full of jargon it’s difficult for parents to agitate for them.’ ’

School officials may tell you it’s really hard to find enough highly trained and math teachers, says Schmidt. "But your child shouldn't have to suffer as a result.''

Parents, says Schmidt, should ask questions about math and demand answers.

It's one small way to push for change.

Read all of Liz Willen's Middle School Muddle

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