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Jay Greene and the Magic Abacus

From time to time, my colleague skoolboy will pop in and say a word. (You can check out his holiday posts about class size here):

Greene and Catherine Shock, writing in the Winter issue of City Journal, contend that ed schools care more about the political and social ends of education than basic academic skills. In a survey of U.S. News and World Report’s top 50 ed schools and 21 other flagship state universities, they examined course titles and descriptions in order to calculate a “multiculturalism-to-math ratio”—the ratio of courses that emphasize multiculturalism to those that focus on math. At the average education school, they contend, the multiculturalism-to-math ratio is 1.82, but at some schools, the ratios are much higher. At UCLA, for instance, 47 courses include the words “multiculturalism” or “diversity,” whereas only three contain the word “math,” for a ratio of almost 16 to 1.

skoolboy likes this kind of research, because he doesn’t have to leave the comfort of his office to figure out what students are expected to know before they are admitted to their degree programs; what courses they are required to take for their degrees; and what they actually take. It’s so much more convenient to look at course catalogs. I decided to do the same kind of analysis for Harvard Medical School, looking at the course offerings for the 2007-08 academic year. Did you know that there’s not a single course that mentions the word math?! But there are two that mention either diversity or social justice. Why, that’s a ratio of … hmm, I’m in an ed school, I guess I’m not sure. But I think it’s outrageous that the faculty of Harvard Medical School don’t care if their students know anything about math.

I decided to take a closer look at UCLA, which offers a Mathematics for Teaching B.S. degree. The preparation for the major requires seven courses in mathematics, and courses in physics, computing, and chemistry or biochemistry. The major itself requires 13 mathematics courses. (UCLA operates on a quarter system.) None of these courses is offered in UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Sciences, but I don't think you can say that the school doesn't care about the mathematical preparation of its prospective math teachers.

The villains of Greene and Shock’s story are familiar: ed school professors accountable to no one but themselves, and blindly allegiant to multiculturalism and diversity; students shying away from math because it’s hard; and spineless accreditation bodies such as NCATE that care more about multiculturalism and diversity than subject matter teaching. Little wonder we’re getting our butts kicked by Slovakia in international assessments!

Too bad that the story is so distorted. One of NCATE’s constituent organizations is the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics, which has explicit standards for prospective math teachers’ content knowledge, field experiences, and mathematics teaching processes. Most states now regulate teacher preparation programs in ways that are intended to insure that teachers have adequate subject matter knowledge. And a little-known piece of legislation called No Child Left Behind has sought to promote this as well. We’re still some distance from agreement on how to discern teachers who know their subjects and who know how to enable students to master them; but no one’s proposing using course catalogs for this purpose.

I'm not sure how closely Greene and Shock stuck to their "math or variations on the word math" rule, but looking at the Havard Mathematics department course catalog (see http://www.math.harvard.edu/courses/index.html) I would conjecture that less than 1/5 of the course titles there have the word "math" in them.

I understand Greene and Shock opted to search for math courses for the "shock value" (so to speak), but a little reflection reveals the absurdity of this choice. Are ed schools just training math teachers? Of course not. And even if they were, would the math content courses be taught there? I hope not.

It is also of note that half the courses in a course catalog are rarely if ever taught. Often, if a course has ever been taught by someone, it reamins on the books.

Hey, Dumb Economist, you're not so dumb after all! (Unless you're into that freaky economics stuff.) The most dubious courses in a catalog are the ones listed as being taught by "Staff". That guy teaches way too many courses. At many different institutions at the same time, too.

It might be worth looking closer to home, and actually pulling course descriptions. Teacher-math-courses are often specially designed with less math than regular math courses. And some of the requirements are fairly fuzzy.

I'm not arguing the other side, just that the truth falls somewhere in the middle.

Speaking of fuzzy - NCTM. I think it's more a staff developers' than a teachers' organization.

Comments are now closed for this post.


Recent Comments

  • Jonathan: It might be worth looking closer to home, and actually read more
  • skoolboy: Hey, Dumb Economist, you're not so dumb after all! (Unless read more
  • Dumb Economist: I'm not sure how closely Greene and Shock stuck to read more




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