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We Owe It to Our Children

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by Lee V. Stiff, NCTM President 2000-2002
NCTM News Bulletin, September 2001

Recent mathematics results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)--the "Nation's Report Card"--point to students' gains in mathematics. Achievement in mathematics among U.S. fourth- and eighth-grade students is improving. The percent of fourth-grade students performing at or above the proficient level has doubled from 13 to 26 percent since 1990, and the corresponding percent among eighth-grade students has risen from 15 to 27. Although the results for twelfth-grade students have not been as dramatic, as a group they also have shown improvement since 1990, and twelfth-grade students who take advanced mathematics courses scored higher than they did on the last NAEP--administered in 1996. While these findings are welcome, more can be done to better prepare all students in school mathematics.

Last year's report, Before It's Too Late, by the National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century--the Glenn Commission--provided some guidance. "The most direct route to improving mathematics and science education for all students is better mathematics and science teaching."

We must never lose sight of the need to prepare teachers for the challenges they face in the mathematics classrooms of the United States and Canada. This means providing elementary and middle-grades teachers as well as high school teachers with more opportunities to expand their knowledge of mathematics and the best teaching practices.

The NAEP findings highlight the importance of staffing schools with properly prepared teachers of mathematics. The results indicate that students taught by teachers with mathematics degrees or mathematics education degrees learn more mathematics than students taught by teachers with less mathematics preparation. Today, far too many teachers are teaching out of their fields or with little preparation in mathematics. Of the 300,000 middle school and high school mathematics and science teachers in the United States, nearly 30 percent--46,000 mathematics teachers and 40,000 science teachers--neither majored nor minored in the subjects they teach, according to a 1999 study conducted by the Council of Chief State School Officers. And in high-poverty schools, the numbers are even worse. Students there have less than a 50 percent chance of having a mathematics or science teacher who holds both a license and a degree in the subject.

In addition to seeking more certified teachers in the United States and Canada, we must ensure that mathematics and science are taught and learned with understanding on a scale that is large enough to have a significant impact on national economic, security, workforce, and literacy issues. One step toward accomplishing this goal is a national commitment to sustained, long-term professional development for mathematics teachers. The Glenn Commission recommended the creation of summer institutes to train in-service teachers. These institutes would offer the opportunity for today's teachers to learn more mathematics, explore new teaching methods, and improve their teaching skills.

There should be national investments in professional development programs and activities in mathematics education that are long-term, content based, and aligned with challenging state and provincial standards based on Principles and Standards for School Mathematics. Each nation must provide increased resources and incentives for the recruitment, preparation, and retention of teachers of mathematics in grades pre-K through 12. Elementary teachers of mathematics must have access to learning more mathematics, middle-grades teachers of mathematics should be required to have certification in mathematics teaching, and all teachers pre-K through 12 must be given the opportunity to reflect on their own teaching and best teaching practices in school mathematics.

Improving the mathematics education of all children is a top priority for all of us. To achieve this goal we need to attract bright and dedicated individuals to the teaching profession and we must encourage those already teaching to stay. For too long, teachers have been given too little respect, support, and pay. To alter this situation requires more than a national attitude adjustment. It requires increasing the number of certified teachers, supporting professional development throughout their careers, and providing higher pay for all teachers. Elevating teaching to a valued profession will serve to attract and retain more qualified teachers in every field, especially mathematics and science.

Finally, NAEP results show a correlation between higher performance scores and teachers' knowledge and familiarity with NCTM's Curriculum and Evaluation Standards for School Mathematics of 1989. Results in the next decade will show that Principles and Standards for School Mathematics issued in 2000 will have similar benefits for all of the students we serve.

The NAEP Mathematics 2000 results tell us that we are headed in the right direction. But we have much farther to travel. We should build on the promise of NCTM Standards and recent improvements, and continue to set higher standards for students and ourselves. We owe it to our children, and the future demands it of us. It is a debt we must pay.

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