By Krystal DeJesus
Students, professors and faculty at Stony Brook University filled the SAC auditorium on a sunny February afternoon to attend Philip Uri Treisman’s lecture, “On Innovation in American Mathematics Education.”
Dr. David Bynum, Director of the Center for Science and Mathematics at Stony Brook University, with help from the Provost’s office, invited Dr. Treisman to speak about his knowledge in math education innovation.
“He knew many things about math education that I didn’t know, and that we all need to know to move forward on this national agenda project,” Bynum said. “I’m delighted he would come here.”
Dr. Treisman is a math professor at the University of Texas at Austin, executive Director of the Charles A. Dana Center and Harvard University’s 2006 Scientist of the Year.
The type of innovation in education that Treisman described was about the efforts to improve the system, not the type of innovation that comes with luck and genius.
“Accumulating data, trial and error, systematic theory building on the fly,” Treisman said, “that’s the kind of innovation that’s actually going on in the U.S..”
He laid out four major changes in American education over the last few decades.
The first big change is in expectations, Treisman said. Just over a decade ago, fewer than half of all high school graduates took Algerbra I in the U.S.. Most students took career or consumer math instead, but that isn’t the case anymore.
“Those courses have largely disappeared from the landscape of American education,” Treisman said. “We went from requiring Algebra I in my state for high school graduation 13 years ago to requiring every student to take a year of math past Algebra II.”
Sixteen states in the country have adopted similar graduation requirements to Texas, but New York is not one of them. The state is always in the middle of the national performance profile and slightly behind with curriculum changes, Treisman said.
Changes in performance are also important. The amount of knowledge children have today is about two-and-a-half years ahead of what children knew 17 years ago, Treisman said.
“The American public has this idea that we perform some where near Rwanda in international comparisons,” Treisman said. “That’s just bogus.”
In fact, Singapore and Massachusetts are performing at about the same level statistically on mathematics achievement exams, according to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study.
Treisman explained how teachers need courage to improve, but that courage can disappear when teachers are told they are failing. It’s important to find the strengths of these teachers and remind them of their gains, Treisman said.
The U.S. has shown a rapid gain in performance over the last decade. It went from having 14 countries with higher performance levels in 1999 to five countries in 2007, according to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study.
The third major change is in people’s understanding of international performance targets. Government officials and lawmakers are realizing that taking Singapore’s textbooks and implementing them into the American education system does not work.
“The big difference is not in what textbook they use,” Treisman said, in regards to the success of other countries education systems. “That makes almost no difference at all. The big differences are in how they recruit teachers.”
In countries such as, Finland, South Korea and Singapore, graduates looking for teaching jobs must meet very high standards, where as the U.S. just waits for people to sign up for teaching programs, Treisman said.
Another problem in the U.S. is that teachers do not get enough support, especially first- and second-year teachers, Treisaman said.
For Joseph Poma, a first-year math teacher at Hauppauge High School, having guidance and support at work is a major difficulty “Being a new teacher, I understand there is so much that could be done but there is not enough support,” he said. “I meet with my mentor once or twice a month.”
The last point in the lecture was that studies are beginning to show that the arguments for science, technology, engineering and math education are not true.
“We do not have a shortage of engineers in the U.S.,” Tresiman said. “We have a massive shortage of people at the mid levels who have general mathematical and scientific literacy. Nurses, firemen, EMTs all need a strong technical background.”
Saying that American education “sucks” is debilitating to improving education, Treisman said. The education system has improved tremendously, and it will continue to improve if students get high quality teachers and teachers get the support they need, Tresiman added.
“We need to shift to a wealthier view,” Treisman said. “Most of the forward thinking innovation comes from roll up your sleeves, blue collar, hard work, with lots of data, constant feedback groups, fail fast, fail often, and study the results of the systems the people are in.”