Content makes a comeback

It’s the latest thing in education: Teaching teachers the subjects they’re going to teach. The Vermont Math Initiative focuses on building the in-depth math knowledge of elementary teachers, reports Education Week.

“You can’t teach what you don’t know,” said Kenneth I. Gross, a professor of mathematics and education at the University of Vermont and the director of the initiative.

Teachers can’t teach through games and activities if they don’t understand the underlying math concepts, Gross said.

“If the teacher doesnít know the math they are trying to get out of the game or activity, no math comes out of the activity at all,” he said.

Like many in the program, Jackie Bailey, a 3rd grade teacher at South Burlington Elementary School, was “math phobic” when she enrolled.

Now, she excitedly pulls out colorful examples of the calculus work she has done with her students. “I never imagined I would have come this far,” she said.

The program tries to balance content (what to teach) with pedagogy (how to teach). But the university’s education department has pulled out, leaving the program to the mathematicians. Too much content for the ed profs, apparently.

Another Ed Week story reports on the rise of science specialists in elementary schools. Again, many elementary teachers, trained as generalists, aren’t well-prepared to teach science. The emphasis on reading and math tends to squeeze elementary science out of the curriculum.

I have to say that my elementary school ignored science till fifth grade, which featured the duck-billed platypus. We did very little history, geography or social studies before fifth grade. In those idyllic pre-testing days, we concentrated on reading, writing and arithmetic.

Update: David Klein, a math professor at Cal State-Northridge, writes about California’s major math mess. At his campus, the ethnic studies departments run remedial math classes in which everyone passes. Klein fears the cycle of remediation will continue.

Math professors who teach the arithmetic course for future elementary-school teachers, such as myself, are required to allow all students to use their calculators on the exam that tests their understanding of how and why arithmetic “works.”

Students cannot use calculators on the state’s math exams.

About Joanne


  1. Fuzzy Rider says:

    Maybe if they would eliminate most of the goofy education classes and require content classes, we wouldn’t need to waste time on programs like this.

  2. Steve LaBonne says:

    Speaking as a scientist, I believe reading and math _are_ more important than what passes for “science” in the early grades.

  3. ‘…a 3rd grade teacher…was “math phobic” when she enrolled. Now, she excitedly pulls out colorful examples of the calculus work she has done with her students.’

    Must be quite a program if it can train math-phobic teachers to teach calculus to 3rd grade students.

  4. MTaylor says:

    Our district has just adopted Everyday Math for the primary school level. As a middle school teacher and a parent with children in the primary school, I am sick to my stomach. Teachers who love and understand math will probably do fine with this program, but most elem teachers HATE math and the students will only get worse!

  5. Rita C. says:

    Everyday Math can, apparently, be done well. Our district uses it and we have the top math scores in the state. At the end of 2nd grade, my daughter can add, subtract, do some multiplication and division, and add and subtract simple fractions. Her teacher does supplement with drills.

  6. I second Steve, at those lower levels Math and reading ARE the most important subjects and provide the basis for study in the other subjects. Perhaps the other subjects can be hit upon generally, especially civics and history (teach them to be Americans, I know it sounds cheesy but it’s important).

  7. Fuzzy Rider says:

    I am afraid, Scott, based on my observations, that elementary level teachers do not know enough about THOSE topics to teach them effectively, either

  8. Teachers haven’t been taught content for a long time. I personally know a remedial reading teacher in her mid forties who can’t read as well as her 12 year old daughter. The people going into teaching aren’t the people who know the content. Those who really know the content are going where they can make a comfortable living for themselves and their families.

  9. jeff wright says:

    The grim irony in our educational system is that everybody is going crazy trying to figure out to get middle and high schoolers to pass those tests. Meanwhile—the elementary schools—where critical foundations in reading and math are supposed to be laid—go on their merry way. The elementary schools, where teacher intellect and subject matter expertise seemingly take a back seat to baby sitter qualifications.

    If you’ve screwed a kid up in K-5, success in middle and high school may be out of reach. We should think about that the next time we bash middle and high school teachers. IMO, they are oftentimes attempting the impossible.

    Gotta love those ed schools.

  10. I didn’t register for the OC Register, so I can only go by what Joanne said and quoted in her update: e.g.,

    “the ethnic studies departments run remedial math classes”

    How does THAT work? Do they cooperate with the math department, or do they have their own in-house math instructors? Are those instructors mathematicians who can’t get work elsewhere? Or are they non-mathematician professors, instructors, and/or grad students whose true specialty lies in deconstructing Westernized identities of People of Pigment ™, etc.?

  11. Insufficiently Sensitive says:

    “the ethnic studies departments run remedial math classes” – in which EVERYONE PASSES.

    In other words, the word ‘remedial’ is code for a healing process, wherein the wounds inflicted by inconsiderate teachers attempting to impart + – x / to the suffering students are soothed by a gratifying group process from which math is excluded.