By Murray Siegel
If we are to have a massive increase in new high-salary jobs, we need to increase the supply of Americans with sufficient technical knowledge to be qualified for these positions. Some will require a four-year college degree in a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) program while others call for the completion of a vocational-technical program like ones available at Central Arizona College.
What has hampered Americans from completing the appropriate education is mathematics, especially in college STEM programs. Most of those programs require the successful completion of two semesters of calculus, while degrees in physics, engineering and mathematics require four semesters of calculus.
For years researchers have sought to increase the number of American students who can successfully navigate first-year calculus. College courses have been revamped and placement programs have been developed. Some researchers attempted to improve the preparation of students for calculus by seeking a solution at the high school level. Some have provided speakers and field trips to middle school students to motivate them to consider a STEM career.
To date these efforts have not borne fruit. What is the problem? The efforts to better prepare students for success in a STEM program were in the wrong school grades. It is in elementary schools where many students learn they cannot “do math.” Others see that math is a set of meaningless rules and give up on pursuing advanced math courses. What is the problem in our elementary schools?
Elementary classes are constructed to include students of all ability levels.
A fifth-grade class might contain a few students who still cannot add or subtract whole numbers as well as students who can already operate with fractions and decimals. The remaining students are at various locations on the learning curve. The teacher complies with the required curriculum. Students at the low end give up. Students at the upper end get bored. The origin of mixed ability classes is a desire to avoid labelling students (some may recall the Bluebird and the Redbird groups of the 1950s).
To demonstrate how illogical mixed ability grouping in elementary school math classes is, consider this scenario. Imagine all college freshmen had to take a Calculus 1 class as first semester freshmen. Students who had taken Advanced Placement Calculus in high school and who should be exempt from this course are required to be in the class – that is the rule. Students who barely passed math in high school and who should be in a remedial class are in the Calculus 1 class – this is the rule.
This scenario is both unfair and irrational, yet that is exactly what occurs in most elementary school math classes. What can be done? A future column will provide reasonable answers.
Murray Siegel has a PhD in MathEd and 42 years of teaching experience. He and his wife Sharon are volunteer teachers of advanced math classes at Butterfield Elementary School.
This column appears in the November issue of InMaricopa.