Here’s a puzzle: If U.S. students do so badly on international tests, especially in math, how can it be that the U.S. economy is so strong? An educated workforce is supposedly a big predictor of a country’s income and annual growth. Yet the performance of American 15-year-olds on the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, has always been lackluster. Since 2012, U.S. math scores have slumped down into the bottom half. Meanwhile, the U.S. remains the top economy in the world this year with over $19 trillion of goods and services produced. No other country even comes close.
A group of behavioral economists wondered if U.S. students are actually not as incompetent as their scores would suggest, but simply lazy when they’re taking the PISA exam. To test this, they created a PISA-like exam of just 25 questions and asked 447 sophomores at two different high schools to take it. Seconds before the test started, they surprised half the students at each school with an envelope of 25 $1 bills. The researchers told those students they would take away one dollar for each incorrect or unanswered question.
Last school year, when Cierra was a junior in high school, her math teacher quit and a substitute teacher with no math training filled in.
That’s not unusual in McDowell County, West Virginia, where Cierra lives. The school district has such a hard time recruiting math teachers that Cierra had a string of substitutes in ninth and 10th grade, too.
“I don’t know any math,” she said. “You can hand me, like, a freshman-year math and I’m like, ‘Um, no, I don’t know, I’m sorry.’”
McDowell County used to have a lot more teachers — and a lot more people — when coal mining employed 65 percent of the working population. Now, people are leaving, businesses are closing and the McDowell County Schools can’t find or keep the teachers they need.
If you have any desire to be a math or science teacher in California, there is no shortage of programs to help you achieve that goal.
In an effort to lure more people to the profession, the California Department of Education, California State University, the University of California and nonprofits such as 100Kin10 have all created programs to entice college students and mid-career professionals – especially those in the math and science fields – to become teachers.
100kin10 has a web site, “Blow Minds: Teach STEM,” that connects undergraduates with teacher preparation programs in the so-called STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering and math. And college campuses are plastered with “Teach Math!” and “Teach Science!” posters aimed not just at those majoring in math and science, but students interested in social justice as well.
Pfaff learned last week that she is one of two teachers in Washington state to receive a Presidential Award this year, one of the highest honors for U.S. math and science teachers. (The other Washington winner is Pamela Nolan-Beasley, a science teacher from Waitsburg, north of Walla Walla.)
A lot has changed, Pfaff says, since she first started teaching elementary-school math 37 years ago, and much of that is based on a growing understanding of how children learn.
We talked with Pfaff (pronounced Paff) about the state of math instruction in the United States, our students’ performance on the PISA, and how she gets students to love math.
Q: What are you doing now?
A: I work at two different schools — Blackwell Elementary and Thoreau Elementary — and children come to me from seven or eight schools at each of those sites. It’s a once-a-week enrichment program for kids identified as gifted.
There was some good news today for New York City high school students interested in computers — the city’s Department of Education announced it would spend $1 million in public and private money to train 120 teachers in computer science and coding. Dozens of new computer science classes taught by newly trained teachers will open in high schools across the city next fall, and Chancellor Dennis Walcott said they would eventually expand to elementary and middle schools.
That’s exactly the kinds of hands-on exposure to real-world jobs that is lacking in thousands of school districts across the country. As the first editorial in our science and math series noted on Sunday, only 19 percent of American high school students have taken a computer science course. Many students who might have excellent coding abilities are never exposed to the subject, missing out on promising career paths.
That’s often because teachers themselves have no idea how to write a computer program. Many educators who commented on the editorial said they wanted better preparation for the math and science courses they teach.
“I know firsthand that underprepared teachers is a HUGE issue,” wrote Beth Z., a math teacher in Alaska. “We have a ‘math’ teacher right now who majored in HISTORY. How do you get people who major in mathematics to go into teaching? The job is often thankless and quite stressful. Plus, other people are always telling you how to do your job.”