Educating Maths Teachers in America

By LoGerfo, James | Contemporary Review, November 2001 | Go to article overview

Educating Maths Teachers in America


LoGerfo, James, Contemporary Review


IN Britain debates about the need for increased attention to scientific and technological education go back to the nineteenth century and are increasing today as New Labour attempts to put its vague electoral slogan of 'Education, Education, Education' into some practical policies. A similar debate is brewing on the other side of the Atlantic.

During last year's campaign for President, much was heard about 'fuzzy maths' in reference to various budget and tax proposals. Without attempting to assess the accuracy of such judgments, one can more readily look at the realm of education itself. However this topic produces its own 'fuzziness'.

A recent example occurred earlier this year in an opinion piece in The Washington Post. A prominent educational psychologist. David C. Berliner, offered an analysis of data released the previous December as part of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study-Repeat (TIMSS-R), which is a comparative assessment of student performance in 38 countries. The data revealed that American eighth-grade students ranked 19th in maths and 18th in science among students in the 38 countries.

Mr. Berliner criticised President George W. Bush for joining the chorus of Jeremiahs who thought the data reflected poorly on the American education establishment and the vast sums spent per student. The President, the professor of education declared, 'apparently doesn't understand history or data'.

The history that apparently eluded President Bush was that similar jeremiads were launched in the 1950s by, among others, Admiral Hyman Rickover, who lamented the 'lazy and unfit' students of that period. Berliner also derided as 'laughable' the conclusions of the famous A Nation at Risk report issued early in the administration of President Ronald Reagan. The memorable summation of the report was that 'if an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war'. Despite the dire forecasts in that report, Berliner notes gleefully, 'we have built the world's strongest economy' and American workers 'attain the highest rates of productivity in the world'. The gloomy critics, therefore, were wrong. But he fails to consider that other factors may be at work here: instead of attaining those happy results in spite of the deficiencies highlighted by Rickover, Reagan, and others, they may have been achieved bec ause of the criticism.

The better school districts, including those in the TIMSS-R assessment, may have in fact been goaded to excellence precisely as a result of the earlier criticism. As for the successful government and corporate leaders, they are the leaders not the mass of troops on the line. Good education will always be available and some people will always be well educated--at a cost; and natural talent will emerge. Some people have more motivation and will want to learn more than others and go beyond a common level of attainment; they will rise to leadership positions. But even corporate leaders are not exempt from making mistakes and exercising bad judgments. Think of the foundering high technology companies and the evanescent dotcoms.

The quality of the eduction the masses get is what is in need of reform. Professor Berliner hasn't read President Bush very well. The President's original education programme was not aimed at improving elite prep schools but poorly performing urban schools. Credit for the higher rate of worker productivity that Berliner cites is generally assigned to ever increasing sophistication in technology. This is what drove the economy skyward in the 1990s and what has kept inflation low. And not all the credit for technological innovation can be given to the American elementary and secondary education system as Professor Berliner clearly implies. A sizable portion of the workforce in high technology enterprises comes from abroad, mostly from Asia, and therefore those employees' secondary, and very likely university, education took place elsewhere. …

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