BY LINDA MORGAN MAR 2017
RAISING MATHEMATICALLY COMPETENT KIDS
A s parents, we value few skills more dearly than literacy. After all, reading opens the door to brand-new worlds, innovative ideas, and critical thinking. Literacy holds the key to learning. Who doesn’t revel in their child’s first recitation of the ABCs? What proud parents don’t crow—even a little bit—if their son or daughter turns out to be an early reader? So why are we less concerned with math?
What does all this, well, add up to? Seems that in this country, we don’t treat mathematics with enough respect, and our children feel the fallout. “Everyone is comfortable with reading,” says Becca Lewis, a former elementary school teacher. “Parents have this expectation that all kids learn to read. But math is less visible. It’s harder to put in kids’ hands; you don’t have it sitting around your house, like books.”
A study published by the U.S. Department of Education, “The Final Report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel,” concludes that as a nation, our math skills are declining. “There are consequences to a weakening of American independence and leadership in mathematics, the natural sciences, and engineering,” the study reports. “We risk our ability to adapt to change. We risk technological surprise to our economic viability—and to the foundations of our country’s security. National policy must ensure the healthy development of a domestic technical workforce of adequate scale with top-level skills.”
The picture’s even gloomier from a global perspective. Compared to math students around the world, our kids pretty much pale. Here’s what the 2009 National Report Card indicates (the data was collected by the National Assessment of Educational Progress): Thirty-four percent of students in the United States score at or above proficiency level in eighth-grade math, and 39 percent score at proficiency level in fourth-grade math. According to the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, just 23%— not even one out of four!—of U.S. students show math competency at grade 12.
The reality is that math matters. “It can be a gatekeeper for a lot of kids,” says Lewis, who is now a curriculum designer at DreamBox Learning, a Web-based, math learning tool geared toward elementary-school kids. “If kids don’t take enough math or score well on tests, countless education and career opportunities will be unavailable to them.”
If your kids seem blasé about the education and job ops they risk missing, maybe they’ll respond to real-life requirements: mundane tasks such as shopping, dining out, and figuring out mileage and budgets for trips all take numbers know-how.
“You don’t need to be math literate only when you want to pursue fields like physics and engineering,” says Sarah Daniels, a former Stanford math major who’s now marketing vice president for DreamBox. “You can’t buy a house, balance your checkbook, or decide whether it’s better to buy a product at Costco or the grocery store without math but in our math-starved society, we’ve forgotten that.”
Teachers try their best to get students up to speed in math. But many teachers these days are undertrained and underfunded. “Teachers frequently lack things they need, like paper, ink, or hands-on materials kids can use to model their thinking,” says Lewis. And teacher-prep programs often go light on the math content. Lewis, who learned to teach kindergarten through eighth-grade math in a program that offered a semester-long weekly math/science course, supplemented her own training with additional instruction.
It doesn’t help that no one seems to agree on teaching methods. This, of course, is nothing new. Ever since arithmetic became math with the introduction of New Math in the space race ’60s, coaching kids to multiply, divide, and compute algebraic equations has generated controversy. For example: Is your child’s math program based on inquiry, or does it focus on the basics? Ask around; the impassioned thinking and divergent views on this topic may surprise you.
“There has been a dumbing-down of content, standards, and expectations in schools,” says Bob Brandt, a founding member of Where’s The Math? (wheresthemath.com), an advocacy group that works to restore rigor to math education.
Where’s The Math? organizers call current math trends fuzzy and support a program that emphasizes fundamental computational skills. “If parents are technically trained, they look at their child’s math curriculum and think, ‘How will my child have the potential to do the kind of work I’m doing?’” says Brandt.
Bringing Math Home
While the math-ed hotshots battle it out, where does that leave parents and kids? With any luck, at home, engaging in number-rich games and activities. No one is asking you to solve logic problems (second-graders can do them, but they make grownups dizzy) or do a fact triangle (don’t ask). Simply make counting, patterns, and numbers part of your child’s routine:
Driving someplace? Notice which exit number is coming up—and show your child how they appear sequentially. If your elementary-age child has a toddler-sibling, throw in a counting song like, “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe.”
Game time. Play board games with them that require math skills and score keeping, such as Yahtzee, checkers, and Chutes and Ladders.
Shopping. Have kids help you keep a running tab at the grocery store. Get them to figure out discounts when shopping for sales.
Eating Out. Teach how to calculate a tip. Get them to compare the cost of eating in with the cost of cooking an entire dinner at home.
“Add math to your child’s daily life in small ways, like a vitamin,” says Lewis. “That will help them think about math more positively.” #
Courtesy of Linda Morgan, author of Beyond Smart: Boosting Your Child’s Social, Emotional, and Academic Potential. For more information or to order, visit parentmap.com/beyondsmart.