MTSU STEM conference expert analyzes new state college math, reading readiness report

MTSU Tennessee STEM Education Center conference first-day keynote speaker Ilana Horn viewed a newspaper account of the state’s high school students generally not being prepared for college in math, her specialty, or reading, with a number of reasons why there are problems.

Horn is a professor of mathematics education at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College in Nashville, Tennessee. Her research and teaching center on ways to make high-quality math accessible to more students, especially those who have historically been underserved or marginalized by the state and U.S. educational system.

The data, released Wednesday (Feb. 13) by the state Senate Education Committee, confirms many systems struggle to prepare students for community college and universities in math and reading while others are more successful.

Horn was part of the two-day conference in the Student Union, bringing educators from across the state and region to MTSU to engage in engage in conversations about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education and applications to practice in kindergarten through graduate degrees. More than 140 people attended the 13th annual conference — the first for new Tennessee STEM Education Center director Greg Rushton.

The state’s information reveals 46 percent of about 33,000 high school graduates at the state’s public colleges in 2016-17 needed remedial efforts in math and 33 percent needed remedial efforts in reading. The students graduated from high school in May 2016 and entered college that fall. There’s no data for students who went to private colleges.

“This is not a new story. This is a very old story, and there’s a lot of different ways to look at this story,” Horn said Thursday (Feb. 14) of the latest math/reading numbers supplied by the state. “This is about teacher preparation, about work conditions, about math teacher shortage and about the different pressures that kids are experiencing and the lack of support for helping them gain skills they need to grow to be successful students.”

“I’ve seen a lot of teachers feel very frustrated in the last 10 to 15 years over the pressures around test scores because they feel like the pressure to keep up with the pace of the curriculum, which is very packed and very full, pushes them against that idea of helping kids come along and really develop that understanding,” Horn added.

Horn said there is a correlation in the math and reading scores — that “stronger readers would out-perform the weaker readers” in math.

The math expert said there are four decades of research in math and science education, but there’s a “gap between what we know good teaching is like and what often happens in schools. A lot of times it’s not a teacher-blaming situation. It’s about resources and supports and conditions,” and that was a major theme to her after-dinner talk.

Brett Wainz, who teaches seventh-graders science at Siegel Middle School, said Horn’s references to “research for improving math instruction for students” is useful. “The more we can research, the better off for students in the future,” he added.

Friday’s luncheon keynote, Vicente Talanquer from the University of Arizona, discussed “Reinventing the Foundations” of chemistry. He is the first university distinguished professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Arizona.

Educators came from colleges in Tennessee, Alabama and Kentucky. Participating school systems included Metro Nashville, Murfreesboro City and Rutherford, Wilson, DeKalb, Clarksville/Montgomery, Franklin, Sumner and Williamson county schools.

Rushton said the 14th conference will shift from MTSU, where it has been held for 13 years, to Tennessee Tech’s campus in Cookeville, Tennessee, Feb. 13-14, 2020.

The conference was hosted by the Tennessee STEM Education Center, Tennessee Tech, the MTSU Mathematics and Science Education Ph.D. program, the Tennessee STEM Innovation Network, the MTSU and the Office of Research Services.

MTSU has more than 300 combined undergraduate and graduate programs.

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