It must be some kind of a record. I've never before been to a one day conference and come out with upwards of twenty pounds of materials. I nearly turned tail and ran when I spotted the heap, but am very glad I didn't.
The conference, entitled The State of K-12 Mathematics Education in Washington, had its origins (at least some of them) at last winter's WaToToM gathering. It was there that Bev Neitzel of the Office of the Supertintendant of Public Instruction (otherwise known as OSPI) discovered just how much Washington's Teachers of Teachers of Mathematics don't know about the aforesaid state. And along with that, that we really did want to know it. So OSPI put together a one day crash course, being given once on this side of the state and once in Spokane, and yesterday was when it happened. We learned about the Essential Academic Learning Requirements (whose acronym is generally pronounced "eelers", with amusingly piscine overtones!), and the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (the tests administered in fourth, seventh and tenth grades) and their development and consequences--among other things just how much care has gone into assuring that they are developmentally appropriate. The underlying goal, and a huge goal it is, is to shift the emphasis from computation and procedures swallowed whole to thinking and communication and application. Meanwhile, in the off years the basic skills are still being tested with the standardized tests we all remember, so they haven't by any means been ditched.
All of which presents teachers with a huge plateful--or rather platterful--of challenges. To support them in meeting those challenges, OSPI has produced lots of materials. There are sample tests, with descriptions of the scoring methods, and there are detailed descriptions of the criteria given to the test makers (right down to how many digits a fourth grader is expected to be able to multiply by) and lists of mathematical terms which may be used. There is also a really impressive set of "CBE"s (for Classroom Based Evidence),one for each of the Essential Learnings. These consist of some carefully chosen activity designed to help both the taecher and the students understand what the key issues are for that Learning (Communication, for instance) and how it is possible for the learning of those issues to be assessed.
In all, an extremely impressive set of materials. The snag, as it turns out, is getting them into the hands of the right people. Too many of them are getting filed either in a school's central office, from which teachers never get them, or in teachers' bottom drawers because their significance and potential usefulness are lost in the flood of incoming materials. Hence the twenty pound gift. The hope is that we will be able to send out new teachers not merely with the materials in hand (and we have the photocopy permission letter to accomplish that part) but with enough understanding of their purpose to use them effectively and demonstrate them. Optimistic, maybe, but not unreasonable.
And that leads us neatly back two days to Harvey Keynes's Brown Bag. Minnesota, it seems, is (as so frequently seems to occur) in much the same position we are. Actually (a little chauvenism here) I don't think they are dealing with it as well--but the goals are just the same. They, too, are aiming to get mathematics out of the cookbook and into the brain. In their case, the mechanism has been the imposition of some of the really gorgeous NSF-generated curriculum materials, where the learning is based around projects and activities and lots of student autonomy. The problem--and this most emphatically does apply to us as well as to them-- is that that kind of teaching requires a vastly deeper understanding of mathematics than cranking things out of a textbook does. And perilously few teachers have had either the opportunity or the motivation to acquire that depth--particularly since it's one of those things that if you don't have you don't know it's there. Harvey's response has been to create a new Masters degree, designed specifically as a professional degree for high school teachers. Students in it spend their first year taking serious mathematics courses (same ones as for any masters degree there), attending a teaching seminar and TAing courses in which they are at least somewhat mentored. The next year they spend in the College of Education, taking the core courses there and doing student teaching. At the end, they have a Masters in math, a teaching certificate--and a wad of job offers. He's done it three years so far, and it sounds to be highly effective, and to be something which I, for one, would dearly love to see us emulate.
Space is running out, so I shall have to give Harvey's other talk unfairly short shrift. That was the calculus one, which was actually why he was here. In brief: several years ago, with enthusiastic support from the College of Engineering, the U.M. math department revamped the calculus sequence aimed at future engineers. They shifted to having two lectures a week instead of three, along with two 75 minute workshops (not recitation sections) which make careful use of computers and group work. The professor uses the time liberated by not having to lecture a third hour to go and visit the workshops and work some individually with the students. The up-side of this is that the course has been highly successful, measured (albeit informally) in terms of retention, achievement and students' reactions. The down-side is that it costs appreciably more than the regular courses and the current message from the adminstration appears to be "That's a very nice course, dear. Now it's your turn to pay for it." Hope is not abandoned, but the prospects are looking a tad bleak.
And one more side, neither up nor down, which struck me forcibly was Harvey's analysis of a key element in the success of the course: because the professors attend the workshops and get to know some at least of the students, the students are able to believe that the professors care about them and are interested in their success, and correspondingly are much more likely to get themselves to class and to put their backs into succeeding.
He may not have used the exact same words that Deb Hughes-Hallett used two weeks ago, but boy! did that part of their messages match!