The **previous post **on low 11th grade math NECAP scores was meant to suggest that some of the reaction to them might have been a tad histrionic. (I posted after hearing that one local talk show host suggested the appropriate response is to “hang the teachers”). That was not to say that there is no problem, or that we don’t need to take action. Here a couple more pieces of information I found helpful in thinking about this.

Vermont has just released its NECAP results this week. The percent proficient in math in VT was 30%, compared to New Hampshire’s 28% and Rhode Island’s 22%. RI lags, but it doesn’t seem as though any of these states has anything to crow about. Are these poor results a consequence of poor education or an especially difficult NECAP test? How significant is RI’s lag?

Another way to look at RI’s performance is to look at the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores. Since the NAEP is given nationwide, it allows comparisons. Unfortunately, the last grade for which NAEP mathematics data are available is 8th grade. RI students scored an average of 275, points or 5 points below the national average of 280. Vermont’s score was 291, and New Hampshire’s was 288. Vermont was 4th in the nation, New Hampshire 7th, and Rhode Island 40th. (MA, which doesn’t take part in the NECAP was first on the NAEP). Clearly, Rhode Island has a problem in mathematics education, and it starts before high school.

As to the cause, I previously mentioned the “Math Investigations” curriculum as one possibility. Today’s Providence Journal has an letter to the editor from a math teacher who argues that teacher preparation (not teacher effort) is the source of the problem. The author states,

Memo to parents: If your son or daughter’s algebra or geometry teacher has only a B.A. in education (a content-deprived college major weighed down with onerous requirements) and not a B.S. in mathematics or a related science, your son or daughter is probably being taught by someone who is clueless about core math concepts and who cannot instruct without the use of the teacher’s edition of the textbook.

I did a quick check of the requirements for a secondary education-math degree at Rhode Island College, which supplies a large number of our teachers. That degree requires 9 math courses, in addition to education courses and student teaching. The BA in mathematics requires 12 courses. I’m not in a position to say whether that difference is significant from the point of view of preparing teachers.

I did notice, however, in Education Week’s 2008 “Quality Counts” reports, that Rhode Island is one of only 8 states nationwide, and the only state in New England, that does not require a test of subject matter knowledge to receive a teaching license. A degree is sufficient. If education departments, and the accreditation agencies that review those departments, are doing their jobs well, we should have good teachers. But when 42 states require these tests, it’s an important question why Rhode Island does not.

We’re spending a lot of time and money testing our students. Might we do as well or better by testing our teachers, at least before we give them a classroom? I’m not sure I’d suggest regular content examinations for experienced teachers, but it is also worthy of note that RI is one of only 7 states that does not have state-required teacher evaluations. Districts have their own procedures, but many of them are far from rigorous.

Perhaps even more surprisingly, RI is one of only TWO states that do not have standards for licensure of school administrators. There are a lot of areas in which Rhode Island is justly proud of its independent traditions. I would suggest that this should not be one of them.

on March 16, 2008 at 7:17 pmJill DavidsonI like the new look for the blog, Tom!

Related to math and best directions for instruction, on Friday 3/13, a National Math Panel released a comprehensive report based on panel, extensive literature review, surveys, and more. The National Math Panel website has fact sheets and longer reports with findings: http://www.ed.gov/about/bdscomm/list/mathpanel/index.html

The findings are extensive; I won’t summarize here in full but was struck by the emphasis on the importance of good instruction and the strong sense of mission around algebra competence for all. How well can Providence/Rhode Island’s current state of math curriculum and pedagogy can support that mission – that’s the x to the 3rd power question.

on March 18, 2008 at 7:49 pmMaureen NosalJust keep in mind, Algebra 2 is the “gatekeeper” course in high school. So important to know that well before your kids get to high school.

on March 20, 2008 at 8:39 amThomas SchmelingI appreciate the comment, Maureen.

I don’t have the figures, but I am quite sure that the vast majority of students do not have Algebra 2 before they reach high school. In fact, it’s quite possible that Algebra 2 is not taught in the middle schools in RI at all.

I recall hearing that Nathanael Greene MS was the only middle school in Providence, public or private, to offer Algebra 1 in the 7th grade. I just checked the Moses Brown and Wheeler websites and both appear to offer Algebra 1 only in the 8th grade.

Greene offers Algebra 1 in 7th and Geometry in 8th, with Algebra 2 coming in 9th grade. However, only advanced math students follow this path.

For something like 9 of 11 years, Greene won the state Math Olympiad. Unfortunately, a few years ago, the teacher who ran the program decided she could no longer do so. As far as I know, nobody has replaced her.

For what it’s worth, I didn’t have Algebra 1 until 9th grade, but I was hardly a stellar math student 🙂

on April 5, 2008 at 10:37 amMaureen NosalHi Tom,

Let me clarify…. I meant that kids need to have Algebra 1 in middle school in order to advance in mathematics in high school. If they don’t have Algebra 1 in middle school, they will most likely not make it to Calculus in HS. They need Algebra 2 to get into Calculus, and that is why A2 is called “gatekeeper.” If parents understand this, they are in a better position to understand how to steer their children. So, when I made that comment, I was thinking that parents really need to understand how to “map backwards” from HS calculus, and what becomes very clear is that kids who don’t have Algebra 1 in middle school most likely won’t make it beyond Algebra 2 in HS ( and probably never get to Calc.)