I was initially turned off by the shame-inducing headline of this article by Elizabeth Green in the New York Times, Why Do Americans Stink at Math? But the answer to her question is actually surprising. The innovations in math education that have spread around the world, and that have shown remarkable success, actually started here in the United States. So why have those innovations failed to spread here? Because we choose not to invest in the professional development of our teachers.
In Finland and Japan, where students perform at or near the top in math assessments, teachers spend only about 600 hours a week in the classroom, using the rest of their time to prepare lessons, observe other teachers, and receive feedback on their own teaching. American teachers, by contrast, spend more than 1000 hours a year in the classroom, and have traditionally received almost no feedback from fellow teachers (though this is starting to change).
My wife taught middle school and high school for about ten years, and I have taught at the college level for the last five, and I'm consistently frustrated with the carrots and sticks approach to improving our country's schools, as if bribing teachers with merit pay or threatening them with firing are the best ways to motivate them. In fact, most teachers I know are always striving to do better, even if they're already amazing teachers. What they need is the time and the support to actually improve their skills.
As Green writes:
Most policies aimed at improving teaching conceive of the job not as a craft that needs to be taught but as a natural-born talent that teachers either decide to muster or don’t possess. Instead of acknowledging that changes like the new math are something teachers must learn over time, we mandate them as “standards” that teachers are expected to simply “adopt.” We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that their students don’t improve.