Senior Columnist EdNews.org
Eastern New Mexico University
1) You recently co-wrote an article with Catherine Shock that appeared in City Journal. What was the main point that you were trying to make?
Our point was to highlight the imbalance in the emphasis education schools place on preparing prospective teachers to be aware of and sensitive to multiculturalism relative to preparing them to teach math courses. We did not mean to suggest that multiculturalism and diversity are unimportant. Our argument is that those social goals of education are given disproportionate attention relative to what we think the primary goal of education schools should be – namely, preparing prospective teachers to be effective instructors in core academic subjects.
2) Tell us about your "multiculturalism to math" ratio! What did you do in terms of data analysis?
The multiculturalism to math ratio is not meant to be a rigorous piece of social science. It is a back of the cocktail napkin calculation that is meant as much to amuse as to inform. But like most good jokes, it is based on a kernel of truth. If one looks through the course catalogue of most education schools, one finds much more having to do with multiculturalism and diversity than effective math instruction (or instruction in other core academic subjects, for that matter). It's striking.
To compute the ratio we examined the course catalogues at the top 50 education programs, as identified by US News and World Report. We also looked at an additional 21 state flagship institutions that were not among the top 50. We then simply counted the number of courses titles and course descriptions that had the words "multiculturalism," "diversity," or "inclusion," or variants thereof. And then we counted the number that had the word "math" or variants thereof. Dividing one by the other produces the multiculturalism to math ratio. It's crude, but it captures something that is obviously true – education schools emphasize these social goals of education more heavily than effective pedagogy in core academic subjects. That seems to us to be a mistaken set of priorities.
3) But wouldn't most math classes that prospective teachers would take be found in the offerings of math departments, not education schools?
That's true enough, but math pedagogy and particular issues related to the teaching of math should be found in education schools. It is also true that courses on the content of cultural awareness should be found in the course catalogues of humanities and social science departments, not education schools. If all that prospective teachers needed was content from colleges of arts and science, we wouldn't need education schools. But we have education schools because we think prospective teachers need information specific to the instruction of that content. When we look at education school catalogues we should see a lot of courses focused on conveying effective practices for teaching math and other academic subjects. Instead we see more courses on the social goals of education.
4) Are prospective teachers being forced to take more diversity classes than math classes? Or are students just looking for "three cheap quick, sleazy credits" in some instances?
We didn't look at what students were required to take, only at the full list of courses offered in course catalogues. Most programs have a fair number of electives, so the catalogue is the menu from which students can choose.
Remember that virtually all teachers need preparation in teaching math, not just math teachers. Most elementary school teachers teach all subjects, including math. And even when teachers specialize in higher grades, almost all teachers could incorporate some math instruction in their subject. Math is obviously part of science, but it can also be incorporated into social studies and even English, art, music, and P.E.
5) Certain universities seem to go against the conventional wisdom and do emphasize the need for math and statistics. Which universities seem to be doing well? Which universities seem to be more preoccupied with ethnic, racial, multicultural issues?
Because the multiculturalism to math ratio is a very rough indicator, we can't know too much about the priorities of individual institutions. That being said, the University of Missouri and Penn State are too large state universities that have lower ratios, suggesting a greater emphasis on math instruction. In general, there is a weak pattern suggesting that more elite institutions tend to focus more on multiculturalism, but there is a lot of variation.
6) How do accrediting organizations seem to perpetuate this cycle?
One of the six standards that NCATE requires for accreditation is entirely devoted to diversity. Education schools that de-emphasize these social goals risk losing their accreditation. It's true that NCATE also requires that prospective teachers at accredited institutions "know and demonstrate…content, pedagogical, and professional knowledge." But even in this standard the social goals found in the diversity standard are repeated. Prospective teachers need the "dispositions necessary to help all students learn." To ensure that students have the right "dispositions," education schools have to emphasize the social goals of education.
7) What about getting good math teachers/instructors and keeping them? This seems to be an issue in both the public schools AND the universities?
I entire agree. But I would hope that part of how we get good math instructors in K-12 is by emphasizing math instruction in our colleges of education. And if we make math instruction a priority, schools of education can devote greater resources toward attracting math education professors.
8) I know that other countries seem to focus on "math". Whenever I am in England, I converse with students there and there seems to be this emphasis on learning math and doing well in "maths" (as they refer to it there). What have you found world wide?
We have not analyzed the course offerings of teacher preparation programs in other countries but we did look at international comparisons of student math achievement. The results of those comparisons aren't pretty. In the PISA, for example, US students trail those in 24 of 30 industrialized countries. These weak math results show that we had better do something to make math education a priority in our colleges of education as well as in our K-12 schools.
Published January 17, 2008
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