THE DEAN'S COLUMN
Averting a Crisis in Mathematics Instruction
As if mathematics teachers did not have enough to worry about with the constant focus on their students’ performance on standardized tests—further exacerbated by the No Child Left Behind law—beginning September 2008 New York City high schools will be introducing a new geometry course which is part of the New York State mathematics standards initiative. Instituting a new geometry course would not be a problem for teachers in any of the other 49 states, where geometry has been taught consistently for the past century. However, some twenty years ago New York City (and several years before that, the rest of the state of New York) dropped the Tenth-Year Mathematics course (as the geometry course was then called) in favor of a sequential mathematics course which was a rough attempt to integrate the previous three courses of algebra, geometry and eleventh-year mathematics (which was a combination of second year algebra and trigonometry). Couple this with the fact that the majority of math teachers in New York City have less than four years of teaching experience and you find that there will be many relatively inexperienced teachers faced with teaching a course—geometry—which they have not even studied as a high school student. (It should also be noted that most math majors do not take a course in Euclidean geometry as a part of today’s university curricula.) It was bad enough in the “good-old days” when most math teachers—even the better ones—did not study geometry beyond the course that they were teaching. Imagine now teaching a course on Shakespeare, having read none of Shakespeare’s works beyond Julius Caesar.
The problem that the schools in New York City will be facing next fall is not only providing teachers of the new geometry course with the content that they will be teaching—as well as the appropriate supporting material—but also making them aware of some of the subtle differences between the new geometry standards and the geometry topics they taught as part of the sequential-math sequence. Even the more experienced teachers, who can recall having taught the Tenth-Year Mathematics course will notice differences in emphasis on such things as the forms of writing geometric proofs and the enhancement of topics such as transformations in geometry and three-dimensional geometry. Having served as a member of the New York State Math Standards Commission, which prepared the new standards, I am particularly sensitive to the need to prepare our teachers appropriately.
These are not overwhelming challenges for any properly prepared math teacher, yet they deserve special attention well before the fall 2008 school-year begins. Take this as a wake-up call to begin intensive in-service training throughout the city so that teachers can gear up gradually, appropriately and in a meaningful manner. We at the City College of New York take this problem seriously and are trying to do whatever we can to meet the city’s needs in this regard. We are using generous funding from the Carroll and Milton Petrie Foundation to prepare mathematics supervisors and coaches at the high school level to be able to prepare teachers to meet the challenges in geometry in time for the next academic year. I hope other schools of education as well as the Department of Education will support other such efforts. CCNY cannot—and should not—be alone in this effort. With additional support we could broaden our efforts as well and help make a smooth transition to this new course, thereby preserving the excellent teaching of this most important subject!#
Dr. Alfred S. Posamentier is Dean of the School of Education at City College of NY, author of over 40 books on math including Math Wonders to Inspire Teachers and Students (ASCD, 2003) and Math Charmers: Tantilizing Tidbits for the Mind (Prometheus, 2003), and member of the NYS Standards Committee on Math.