November 09, 2006
Associate Professor of Psychology
Zheng (Jenny) Zhou, Ph.D., and colleagues from Columbia
University and Beijing Normal University recently cited evidence
suggesting that poor math skills among U.S. elementary school
students are partially attributable to inadequate teaching ability.
The study, which measured and compared teaching efficacy in U.S.
and Chinese public elementary schools, was published in the October
issue of Contemporary Educational Psychology.
“In order for kids to grasp mathematical concepts, the teachers
need to first have a deep understanding of the subject domain, and
that’s not happening right now,” says Zhou.
Conducted over the course of two years, the study examined 162
third-grade math teachers in the United States and China. At the
time of data collection, each teacher was engaged in lessons
introducing students to rational numbers and fractions. Teachers
were evaluated based on their knowledge of subject matter
(comprehension of rational numbers), pedagogical content (ability
to communicate subject matter in comprehensible way) and general
pedagogy (ability to adhere to psychological and pedagogical
theories and applications).
Results suggested that American third-grade teachers have a low
comprehension of basic fraction concepts; resort to ineffective
strategies to solve fraction word problems; and have limited
ability to teach students about fractions.
After being evaluated in the area of subject matter knowledge,
American teachers earned an average score of 30%, compared to the
Chinese teachers’ average score of 95%.
Zhou says that although U.S. and Chinese teachers use many of
the same methods — such as paper-folding and pencil-shading to help
students learn fractions — the methods in Chinese schools “are more
sophisticated, and the overall approach is more systemized.” Zhou
also points out that Chinese teachers exhibit a deeper
understanding of “longitudinal curriculum”; knowledge of what
students have already learned and stand poised to learn throughout
their elementary school careers.
“This study shows that every culture brings something different
to the table of education, and educators can learn from each
Raymond DiGiuseppe, Ph.D., Professor and Chair of the
Department of Psychology.
Significant research has sought to solve the problem of flagging
math scores earned by U.S. students, especially when compared to a
reverse trend exhibited in many Asian countries. Scholars have
focused primarily on cultural differences in math curricula,
societal expectations, time spent in the classroom and number
systems. But relatively few studies have examined teaching
According to Zhou, there is a lack of emphasis placed on subject
knowledge (i.e. math) in education degree programs offered by
American colleges and universities. Zhou says many American math
teachers were not required to study math in college and often rely
solely on math courses they took in primary and secondary school
when planning their lessons. Because of this trend, Zhou says that
U.S. teaching programs should adopt apprenticeship and mentorship
requirements and implement videotape review sessions (between
novice teachers and experts) in order for the country to recapture
a respectable reputation in the math world.
“Mass teaching reform has been going on for decades, and the
data show students are still performing poorly,” says Zhou, who has
published more than a dozen cross-cultural studies on mathematical
reasoning and teaching. “As employer demand for workers skilled in
mathematics increases with the global market, American teachers
will need to be better prepared in this subject area if the U.S.
hopes to remain competitive in the world economy.”
Zhou is a former recipient of research grants from the Fulbright Scholar Program, the National Science Foundation and the
U.S. Department of Education. She
serves on the editorial boards of School Psychology
International, School Psychology Quarterly and
Psychology in the Schools.