It hardly seems that a week can go by without seeing another newspaper story or television report about the decline of the American Educational Establishment. Particularly in respect to mathematics. As a product of said establishment Samuel Hansen can not say that he thinks that it is as bad as the doomsayers would have us all think, but that is not to say that he thinks everything is peachy keen either.

There are problems, ranking 25th, out of 34 countries, on the mathematical section of the OECD’s International Student Assessment test, a score they refer to as being Statistically significantly below the average makes that clear. As does the general populace’s ill will towards the subject.

The problems are not insurmountable though, in fact Samuel may have spoken to some the people who will help solve them.

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The Teacher:

Dan Meyer is a PhD student at Stanford University. He has also spent 6 years teaching high school math, a year as a Cirriculum Fellow at Google, and is the man behind the popular mathematics education blog dy/dan. Samuel first heard about him from the TEDx talk that spread like wildfire across the internet mathematics community.

Dan Meyer(download)

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The Organization:

Math for America is a non-profit that has made its mission since 2004 to improve the state of USA mathematics education by creating a corps of top notch educators and leaders. In order to accomplish this goal they have created fellowships to support new teachers, established teachers, and mathematics teachers that are going into administration. Samuel spoke with the president of Math for America, John Ewing, in their New York offices. He also spoke with Math for America Fellows Meredith Klein and Patrick Honner.

Math for America(download)

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The Innovator:

Keith Devlin is the Executive Director of Stanford’s H*STAR institute, a mathematician, an author, an educator, and a World of Warcraft player. When you put all of those things together you get a man both qualified and inclined to think about how video games can be used in mathematics education.

Keith Devlin on Video Games and mathematics education(download)

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Calvin Cardioid (2) (3)

3 thoughts on “1+1=2

  1. Great podcast. Great episode. I found the second segment on Math for America particularly interesting, though I don’t think it would have saved me, even if I considered myself a good teacher.

    I was a math major from a highly-ranked liberal arts college. I live in California. After a few years in the vidgame industry, I went into tutoring. After about four months, encouraged by my boss and parents, I jumped into a teacher credentialing program, and a few months later started as an intern math teacher. I’ve taught almost exclusively Algebra and CAHSEE math.

    My first two years were at a multi-branch strip-mall based charter school. Class sizes were small (in part because classrooms were small, in part because attendance was a huge issue with the population in question), often only 5 to 10 students showing up per class. All grading was done on-site; complete a workbook well, you can take a scantron test. Pass the test, you move on to the next unit. I almost never took work home with me. I was happy there, when I wasn’t simultaneously taking classes, and I left only to finish my credential.

    My third year was at a big public middle school, one of the worst in Orange County. There was a school-wide lack of discipline. I was hired on mid-year because my predecessor quit. Students (8th graders) were smoking pot _in class_ my third week there. Students yelled and cursed at teachers constantly, and fought (physically) frequently. The almost complete lack of educational prerequisites on the part of the students, and their almost complete unwillingness to do work (not to mention the pressure to cover content and improve STAR scores) meant I stayed after work at least 2.5 hours every day planning class and calling parents. This did not include grading, which I saved for at home and on the weekends. This did not include BTSA, the continuing (costly and time-consuming) 2-year teacher ed process by which new full-time teachers must work towards a clear (non-expiring) credential. It was brutal, but at least I felt like I was learning and improving. I was “non-re-elected,” i.e., “resign or we’ll fire you,” probably because I was the least senior teacher, and the school (and district) needed to cut jobs.

    My fourth year was at an art-focused high school, which drew a mix of students who had failed out of or been expelled from surrounding districts and high-performing students who were looking for an arts-focused education. My work day was an hour longer than at the middle school, not including 2+ additional required tutoring each week, not including additional soul-killing “professional development.” I had to teach an art class I didn’t entirely feel capable of teaching (having no art teacher experience or training–simply a working knowledge of the software involved). I had a 50-min. house class to teach. I was the _only_ algebra 1 teacher at this small school.
    I did not feel like I was improving. I felt like I was getting worse. I was getting stupider. Eventually, last February, around the time I was contemplating the need to quit, I had a terrible performance review. After my bosses ran through the laundry list of all the ways they believed I was failing (and I agreed), one asked if I even wanted to be a teacher. And I said, “At this point, no, I do not.” At the end of the week my boss said she wanted to meet with me, and expressed annoyance that I wouldn’t stop my tutoring session early to meet; the meeting was to inform me that I was fired.

    I realized in retrospect that I _was_ getting stupider over the course of the year. I had been averaging 4 or 5 hours of sleep a night for _months_. (Studies have shown significant cognitive decline after only a few weeks at 6 hours a night.) And I was still constantly feeling behind on grading and class planning. The teachers I know who do fairly well at their job have almost no life. They spend almost all of their time on their career. If they have families, they spend less time with them than on-call doctors do with theirs.

    I believe the biggest reason that math teachers in America burn out and quit is that the job is truly grueling, even without the mounting pressure from administrators to cover more material in less time, to get higher test scores from students with worse fundamentals. I understand that some lawyers and doctors work similarly long hours with similar stress levels, but they also get paid a lot more. But I’m not willing to sacrifice all of my nights and weekends (as teaching demands, more and more) for any amount of money. Prestige is practically worthless in my mind. When you get 4 hours of sleep (or less) and have to deal with students (not all, but a vocal minority) who have little desire to learn about anything that is not sex or drugs, you don’t care whether a broader community thinks you’re doing a good job, or even if what you’re going through is normal for your job. You’re too exhausted to care.

    We need programs that give teachers time and energy. The only way I can see to do that is to have teachers teach no more than four hours a day, because grading, class planning, class preparation, communicating with parents, communicating with colleagues in your subject/department about your subject, communicating with colleagues in your grade level about specific students, and going through required professional development can EASILY take another four hours a day. That’s a 40-hour work week, not including tutoring and programs like BTSA.

    I agree with Math for America that to improve education in America, we have to keep good teachers in America. But I don’t see teachers (or teaching) improving as long as teachers are kept miserably overworked (especially, for teachers in their first five years, for crappy pay).

    It’s getting worse. I’ve recently heard from a friend at the middle school at which I used to teach. Their budget has been further cut. The teachers now have to teach and grade for about twice as many students (five 40-student classes each). This is typical of the way things are going, as states around the country have less money to spend on education. Conservatives around the country complain that too much money goes into education already, and they might be right: a frightening amount gets spent at the administrative or district levels, and teachers often find administrators and high-level district workers to be incompetent at best.

    I love tutoring. It’s the only part of the job I continued to love throughout my four years as a teacher. I’m going to keep doing it, and hopefully get paid. But there is no way I’m ever entering public school teaching again. 2+ years of frustration, anger, and serious depression were more than enough. There is no reason that could possibly justify going back.

  2. I love it! Keep up the good work. Since graduating with a Computer Engineering degree I’ve thought again and again of going in to teaching the maths and sciences. I felt those strong urges again while listening :) I wish there was a “Math for Canada” organization like the one in the states.

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