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Teachers' math skills 'alarmingly weak'

Education students' abilities lacking: prof

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Math professors are appalled at the lack of math skills they see in some education students -- who in turn can't adequately teach math to their own students when they get in a classroom.

"We've kind of been watching a train wreck," University of Winnipeg math Prof. Anna Stokke said Friday.

So far, 184 people have signed a petition demanding far higher standards for admission to faculties of education, 173 of them math, science and engineering professors. They're demanding the provincial government beef up high school graduation requirements for people intending to become teachers.

Some teachers didn't get adequate math courses when they were in high school and thus can't teach their students properly, the petition alleges.

"Currently, many students enter education faculties in the universities in Manitoba with the least demanding of the Grade 12 mathematics courses -- Grade 12 Consumer Math 40S (soon to be replaced by Essential Math 40S, which is equally weak in math content). University math professors have found that students with this minimum requirement often have alarmingly weak mathematics skills and high levels of math anxiety," the petition says.

"Most people aren't aware" a student can get into a faculty of education with only Grade 12 consumer math, Stokke said. "I wouldn't even call it a math course -- it's a life-skills course."

The professors want the province and faculties of education to require future teachers to have Grade 12 pre-calculus or applied math.

"We're seeing a lot of (university students) coming in with consumer math," Stokke said. "It's a disaster. They're coming in with grade-school math.

"We're seeing students come into education with extremely poor math skills."

High school math teachers generally have majored or minored in math for their undergraduate degrees and came out of high school having passed the most rigorous math courses, Stokke said. But some elementary and middle-years teachers don't have the skills to prepare their students in math, she said, leading to long-term problems for those kids.

The system assumes an education grad can teach any subject, she said.

Mathematicians signing the petition "feel students are being cheated," Stokke said.

Consumer math only showed up on the curriculum in the 1990s, and while it's a good life-skills course that prepares students to deal with their personal finances, it's not math, she said.

In a covering letter to Premier Greg Selinger, Stokke noted "mathematics, engineering, economics, business and science professors have noticed that many of our incoming high school graduates have extremely weak math skills."

The petition was also sent to Education Minister Nancy Allan, Conservative Leader Hugh McFadyen, Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard and several members of the media.

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca

 

Basic skill neglected

Here's what some of the people who count for a living and have signed a petition demanding higher math training for teachers say:

My own children have been taught math in elementary school by people who were afraid of math, taught concepts incorrectly, or didn't understand the importance of building a strong mathematical foundation.

-- Elementary and middle-years math teacher Valerie Froese

 

I have taught a variety of courses in chemistry and biochemistry, from introductory to senior and graduate levels, and have been shocked by the lack of math skills of some students. A second-year student could not solve for A in the equation A/4 = 5. I suggested that she inform the principal at her high school of her poor math background.

-- Retired University of Manitoba chemistry Prof. Frank Hruska

 

This is a critical educational issue. Most young children are innately curious about mathematics and easily delighted by it. They are robbed of this inborn interest by subtle signals from authority figures and negative experiences whose cumulative effect manifests before high school. As a professor I see the end result and it is not pretty.

-- U of M math Prof. Robert Craigen

 

It is vital for the health of our society that future generations remain math literate, whatever their ultimate career goals.

-- University of Winnipeg physics Prof. Gabor Kunstatter

 

According to my 40 years' experience as a university professor, too many of our high school graduates lack the ability to solve even the most elementary problems in numeracy, logic and formal mathematics. It hampers their education and, by implication, their subsequent performance in their chosen professions.

-- U of M senior scholar in economics Jesse Vorst

 

I have been teaching for 35 years and have seen a steady decline in math cababilities. Reversing this is critically important to Manitoba's economic future.

-- U of M economics Prof. Greg Mason

 

The fact that they don't even have to complete pre-calculus is simply sad.

-- U of M physics and astronomy Prof. Michael Gericke

 

I have seen first hand the result of teachers without the necessary levels of understanding and ease in mathematics (as well as other sciences). Teachers, especially in the earliest grades, are natural role models for their impressionable students, and if they convey a distaste or anxiety towards mathematics, their students can only see that as an indication of how they should feel towards the subject.

-- Cornell University graduate student Iian Smythe

 

Mathematics is fundamental to maintaining our technological society. Innumeracy is as common and as debilitating as illiteracy. The place to start upgrading is in the schools.

-- U of M computer science instructor Terry Andres

 

This closes so many doors. We cannot give up on our students by letting them skim by with less.

They can learn math!

-- Math teacher Kathleen Nicol

 

It is important to have math teachers who are not scared of mathematics.

-- Brandon University mathematics and computer science instructor Paulo di Muro

 

Young children can develop a fear of mathematics if their teachers do not have a good understanding of the subject.

-- U of W mathematics and statistics Prof. Ortrud Oellermann

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 10, 2011 A13

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