Why you (and your kids) still suck at math: Part 1 of 12,000

First of all, I want to say I was wrong when, years ago, I said our American students were not that bad at math. I based this incorrect statement on:

  1. The fact that rankings on standardized tests are ordinal. So, just like the person who comes in 14th in the Olympics in the 100 yard dash at a time of 10.34 seconds doesn’t suck, ranking 14th or 34th on some arbitrary list doesn’t mean that you are not more than capable for daily life. Of course, the flip side of that is it doesn’t mean that you are, either.
  2. My experience with elementary and middle school children was primarily based on my own family and friends, who attended school in the Santa Monica-Malibu district. As you can see by the latest picture of one of this set of children, it is not exactly an underprivileged life style. Statisticians would call this a non-random, non-representative sample. Although I grew up very far from Santa Monica, my own family was not exactly typical, either (but that’s not just a post but an entire blog in itself!)

Eva wearing her shades and drinking a Roy Rogers

Over the last few years, I’ve had the opportunity to observe and assess students from around the continent, throughout North and Central America (and soon heading to Chile, but that’s another post). I expected a disparity in what students knew depending on geography – kids from richer school districts would do better. The SIZE of the difference blew me away.

In one school, students would be learning percentages in fourth-grade. In another, most of the 8th-graders couldn’t find 40% of 250. That’s a sixth-grade math standard, in case you are wondering.

Why don’t our children know math?

  1. In some cases, they weren’t taught. They had a series of substitutes with no lesson plan for the whole semester or school year because the school could not find a teacher to fill that position.
  2. They were poorly taught. For whatever reason, their teacher was horrible at teaching math. Maybe he or she hated math as a student and whenever there was an opportunity to miss a lesson for Red Ribbon Week or early release due to snow or whatever, it was math that got cut.
  3. The teacher did as good a job as humanly possible but with 7 students coming into the classroom two years behind, 3 children with significant disabilities, one child who was homeless, not enough resources for any of them, she barely managed to cover a year of material in one year, so they exited her class still two years behind their grade level.

All three of these things have in common not enough time spent on teaching mathematics. If you are interested in the topic, I highly recommend this book:

An, S. (2004).  The middle path in math instruction : solutions for improving math education. Lanham, Md. : Scarecrow Education.

The problem An addresses, in addition to time spent on mathematics is HOW we teach math. She gave this example

“…. one lesson by an American teacher had students drawing their favorite cartoon character using graph paper. This was supposed to teach proportion but direct teaching of the concept of proportion, or even the use of numbers did not occur in this particular lesson. “

Even if you DID teach proportion and explained that if two things are “a proportion” it means their relative sizes are the same, not every student would get it, or at least, not right away.

Maybe you need to give some examples, like 7/14 =  21/42 is a proportion.

Maybe they STILL don’t get it and you need to give some concrete examples.

Are pit bulls more dangerous than other dogs?

Chunk is a 5-month old boerboel not a pit bull

Chunk is a 5-month old boerboel, not a pit bull

Let’s say 2/300  dogs that are pit bulls in your city bite someone and 8/ 1,200 of the dogs that are not pit bulls bit someone.

Then, the same proportion of pit bulls bit people as non-pit bulls.

Tell your mom to let you buy that dog!

The problem is that we just don’t spend enough time on teaching math and, paradoxically, increasing the time supposedly devoted to math from 3 hours a week to 5 hours a week won’t necessarily help.

In the first case, if that teacher doesn’t have any lesson plans, is ill-prepared to teach math and is only in the classroom for a week or two before being replaced, having more hours a week designated for a subject isn’t necessarily going to make him or her any better. Sadly, the same is probably true for that teacher who hates math, isn’t any good at math and avoids it. For the third type of teacher, having more time dedicated to math might improve students’ math scores but at the expense of something else, for example, reading achievement.

Would better teacher training help? For the first case, the problem is that the school can’t find a trained teacher to hire, so, the answer is no. For the second type of teacher, maybe. If he or she actually took the training and applied it. For the third type of teachers, I think the answer is generally no. It’s not that they don’t know what to do, it’s that they have too many conflicting demands and not enough resources.

Does that mean it’s hopeless?

I think not. I also believe, though, in the immortal words of Dr. Balow, “When it comes to education and psychology, all the simple answers are wrong.”

I have some thoughts on how educational technology can and cannot be helpful, but that will have to wait for my next post.


While you are waiting, check out what we are working on now to teach statistics AND Latin American history.

What happens to the 2 students who disappear from Mr. Gonzalez' class each year?

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