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Experts outline challenges facing math instruction


Students with disabilities, as well as their teachers, need support in math classes.

Numerous studies point to a fact that cannot be ignored: U.S. students’ math and science performance trails that of several other countries, and the nation’s classrooms need qualified, committed teachers to help students with disabilities, English Language Learners (ELLs), and at-risk students succeed in higher-level math and science courses.

During the Texas Instruments T3 (Teachers Teaching with Technology) International Conference in late February, educators got the chance to learn how technology can be integrated into math and science instruction. The conference included sessions dedicated to the instruction of at-risk students, including those with disabilities and ELLs.

“Math disabilities … are quite significant in some students, and then less obvious in others, but they do exist,” said Dr. Phoebe Gillespie, director of the Personnel Improvement Center at the National Association of State Directors of Special Education.

For more information on improving math achievement, see:

Boosting Math Skills Through Personalized Instruction

Solving the STEM Education Crisis

Gillespie said math is one of the core subject areas in which both students with disabilities and their teachers struggle in particular.

“The preparation of teachers of students with disabilities has not included a good, firm foundation in mathematics—and especially not to teach algebra,” she said.

Many students with disabilities have poor auditory and visual memory skills, rendering them unable to remember basic math facts using typical mathematics instruction. Sequential memory problems, often found in students with an executive functioning disability, make it difficult for students to categorize and sequence numbers. Conceptual processing disabilities present a challenge when students try to understand math and algebraic concepts.

“These things begin to complicate one another as you move along into higher math,” Gillespie said.

Special education teachers who are fully certified in K-12 special education often lack preparation in mathematics, Gillespie noted, adding that they typically take one math course which might or might not be college-level algebra.

Alternative certification courses present another challenge, because no math competency is needed in order to be hired for a special education co-teaching position. In some cases, people with no special education competency are hired for special education teaching positions.

For more information on improving math achievement, see:

Boosting Math Skills Through Personalized Instruction

Solving the STEM Education Crisis

General education teachers face a number of challenges when it comes to educating students with disabilities, including:

  • Identifying each student’s area of ability.
  • Determining how to address that before the student becomes overwhelmed.
  • The proper way to assess a special education student’s progress.
  • The special education teacher might know a lot about the subject he or she is in the general education classroom to co-teach, or might know very little about the subject.

Dr. Alyson Mike, outreach coordinator and director of professional development at the New Teacher Center, said it is important to improve teachers’ abilities at the onset of their careers.

“If you want to retain teachers, you want to retain your best teachers. … We want to make sure that we [help] get new teachers better, faster,” she said, adding that math, science, and special education teachers are among the most needed across the country.

Fifty percent of teachers leave the profession soon after they enter it, but focused mentoring and induction programs along with content-specific support might help new teachers remain in the profession.

“A beginning teacher with a strong mentoring program will succeed, they will stay in the classroom and get better faster, and ultimately they increase student achievement,” Mike said.

For more information on improving math achievement, see:

Boosting Math Skills Through Personalized Instruction

Solving the STEM Education Crisis

To help new teachers feel confident in front of students and feel supported in the school culture, three things are necessary, Mike said:

  • Highly-skilled mentors;
  • Addressing the needs of beginning teachers; and
  • Access to a community of practice where new teachers have a chance to collaborate with veteran teachers in order to improve their practice.

“If we’re really committed to engaging at-risk students, we need to put the best teachers in front of those kids,” Mike said.

“Most teachers in this country have English Language Learners in their classrooms,” said Dr. Susie Hakansson, director of the California Mathematics Project. “We want to develop mathematical proficiency for all students, particularly ELLs.”

When it comes to learning algebra, ELL students face challenges accessing mathematics content, understanding the language of mathematics, teachers’ expectations of ELLs, and equity and quality, she said.

To understand why ELLs struggle, Hakansson asked the audience why English is so complicated and presented attendees with a series of questions to illustrate just how confusing a new language can be:

  • “The soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert.”
  • “Upon seeing the tear in the painting, I shed a tear.”

In addition to those tongue-twisters, definitions of certain concepts or things in English can differ from mathematical definitions—for instance, in the English language, a line is any line segment, but in mathematical terms, a line is infinite.

For more information on improving math achievement, see:

Boosting Math Skills Through Personalized Instruction

Solving the STEM Education Crisis

Handheld technology such as graphing calculators can help all students, but especially ELLs, explore math and science concepts, become engaged, and use polling features to anonymously indicate if they have or have not grasped a concept, and they can help students feel empowered while they learn, she said.

Teachers can learn how to effectively teach and communicate with ELLs by becoming familiar with any misinterpretations their ELL students might have, collaborating with teachers using technology as well as ELL teachers, and forming communities of practice.

Hakansson said professional development coaches can help by collaborating with those who have ELL experience, in order to craft their coaching to include material and strategies on how educators can effectively teach ELLs.

Terry Faitel, a mathematics educator at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and a TI T3 instructor, said using handheld graphing calculators is one way to engage all students.

“You have those kids for 60 minutes—you’ve got to be the CEO of those minutes,” she said, adding that teachers should have students using graphing calculators “from bell to bell.”

“That’s how the kids are going to learn,” she said.

For more information on improving math achievement, see:

Boosting Math Skills Through Personalized Instruction

Solving the STEM Education Crisis

Faitel, who has conducted a number of TI T3 workshops, offered a number of tips and tricks for mathematics teachers using TI graphing calculators.

For instance, she discussed one lesson on quadratic equations in which the students did not know what a quadratic function was.

Using those handhelds, the students were able to see shapes of the equation, see and graph a table, and grasp the concept easier. Faitel said handhelds also helped students understand parallel and perpendicular lines.

She first displayed a number of graphing calculator screenshots and asked students what they noticed about the slopes of various lines.

“That helped when I had to teach the actual math portion of it,” she said.

“I cannot even imagine teaching any kind of class without my graphing calculator,” Faitel said, adding that the technology offers some powerful benefits for students.

“It helps them grow in their confidence and their ability to understand and perform mathematics,” she said.

For more information on improving math achievement, see:

Boosting Math Skills Through Personalized Instruction

Solving the STEM Education Crisis

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