Why our kids hate math

“Our kids hate math” because they’re pushed to learn higher math before they’ve mastered the basics, writes Patrick Welsh, who teaches at T.C. Williams High in Virginia, in USA Today.

The experience of T.C. Williams teacher Gary Thomas, a West Point graduate who retired from the Army Corps of Engineers as a colonel, is emblematic of the problem. This year, Thomas had many students placed in his Algebra II class who slid by with D’s in Algebra I, failed the state’s Algebra I exam and were clueless when it came to the most basic pre-requisites for his course. “They get overwhelmed. Eventually they give up,” Thomas says.

Thirty-one percent of eighth-graders took algebra in 2007, nearly double the percentage compared to 1990, reports the National Center for Education Statistics. In California, 54 percent take algebra in eighth grade. But many repeat it in ninth grade — and still do poorly.

My colleague Sally Miller . . . is the first to warn that too much math too soon is counterproductive. When Miller asked one of her geometry classes what 8 x 4 was, no one could come up with the answer without going to a calculator. “In the lower grades, more time has to be devoted to practicing basic computational skills so that they are internalized and eventually come naturally.”

Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s eighth-grade algebra classes have a “negative effect on most students, especially those students who weren’t stellar in math background,” says Charles Clotfelter, a Duke professor who studied the effects. Doing poorly “knocked them back on their heels.”

“It is time to ensure that all kids absorb the fundamentals of math — computation, fractions, percentages and decimals — first before moving on to the next level,” Welsh concludes.

A frightening number of students never learn math fundamentals. It’s the single greatest barrier to success in community colleges, which attract the un-stellar students. Students who’ve passed high school math classes — including a class called algebra — don’t understand fractions, percentages or decimals and can’t multiply 8 x 4 without a calculator.

About Joanne


  1. More students at our CC dropped the bio/lab class associated with nursing because of math problems than any other reason. Trying to move ahead before learning fundamentals is a recipe for disaster and frustration. Students are better off learning less math but knowing it well than taking advanced math and not actually learning anything. I think that the majority of students can manage arithmetic, fractions, and decimals…and it would be better to work on that through high school if necessary than for them to fake their way through years of watered-down algebra and higher math and be unable to actually do any of it on the job.

    Students who don’t ‘get’ the math reasonably early will struggle with college prep courses that lead to STEM fields, but students who aren’t headed in that direction (carpenters, plumbers, nurses, etc) can use the time to work on the math that is used every day (which may include algebra, but not in 8th grade).

  2. Doesn’t this directly contradict the federal student survey finding last week that a large proportion of students (more than half in the younger grades and still about a third into high school) think their math classes are too easy? Our kids hate math because it’s boring and probably often because it’s too easy. Some hate it because it’s hard, but that’s probably because they had poor instruction early on.

    • SuperSub says:

      Not if the ease of the math classes are due to low standards and lack of mathematical rigorous. I see it as taking kids who have spent years in wading pools with floatation vests on and then throwing them unassisted into the ocean.

  3. “When Miller asked one of her geometry classes what 8 x 4 was, no one could come up with the answer without going to a calculator.”

    I really doubt this is a true story.

    • Sean Mays says:

      I don’t, I’ve had it happen in HS classes I’ve taught (mostly Algebra I and II), along with kids not knowing which is bigger, an inch or a centimeter.

      I once tried to nudge a student to a correct answer on a test. After three tries, I pointed directly to the step where the mistake was and said; your problem is there; one-third times three is NOT 0.99. “The calculator said that is the answer.” It certainly is NOT I replied. “But Mister, how do YOU know that the calculator is wrong?”

      *bonk head into door frame.

    • SuperSub says:

      I’ve had freshmen (two) ask me to remind them what the vowels were.

    • I find it all too plausible. I’ve had students who would reach for their calculator for the most trivial of computations, like sq rt (25) or 14 X 10.

    • Danny Gallagher says:

      @Ryan I think you should believe on it which is possible but we can not directly claim to the teacher because students also have responsibility to do practice but they avoid it.

  4. Why is this a surprise to anyone these days? 🙂

  5. Stephanie says:

    This is absolutely the truth. I taught Algebra I in Texas 10 years ago, and many in that class did not know most multiplication facts. Forget dealing with fractions. My students begged for calculators which I didn’t allow. It was my understanding at that time you could fail middle school math and still be placed in Algebra I in 9th grade.

    The same year I attended a meeting with our dept. and the nearby middle schools to help them develop a system to start 7th graders in Algebra I.

    • Crimson Wife says:

      There is a select fraction of 7th graders who are perfectly capable of doing Algebra 1 *IF* they are given solid math instruction K-6. Many high-performing Asian and European countries have their university prep track students start Algebra 1 in 7th without any problems. Improve the elementary math curriculum in this country and there’s no reason why we couldn’t do the same. Not for most students, but the top 20-30% have the brains if taught properly.

      • Stephanie says:

        Oh sure – there are plenty of students who are capable of this and even higher given good early instruction and a solid foundation. However, I should have clarified that this ‘Algebra in 7th’ was meant to eventually be the normal track like ‘Algebra in 9th’ is now.

  6. We are still GIVING – and I do mean GIVING grades to students who have not mastered the fundamentals. I do realize that it can be discouraging to students to fail, but come on! Many of them have “skills” so inadequate that their PRIMARY strategy for getting an answer is to turn to the kid next to them and ask, “what’d you get?”

    We need to be able to be honest with parents, and that includes C’s, D’s, and F’s. Yes, they may well scream and yell – BUT, a student who has made little effort and paid even less attention has EARNED that grade.

    We also need to take poor curriculums that teachers, themselves, don’t understand, and toss them into the trash. Saxon Math and other more traditional curriculums are at least understandable by the teachers, parents, and kids. I’ve seen some of those “innovative” curriculums, and after spending more than 1/2 hour trying to make sense of the “diagonal multiplication” method, gave up and showed the kid the old way – which, he understood almost immediately.

  7. The calculator, along with a number of teachers in elementary schools who cannot actually teach math, students, and their parents (who in MOST cases) absolutely HATED math in school hasn’t helped either.

    Ran into a situation today where a clerk couldn’t take 15% off of a $70 item (before sales tax) because her register had broken down…I had to give her the answer of $69.50 (doing this in my head) and then figuring out 8 percent sales tax on top of the issue (which was approximately $5.50)…

    She looked at me like WTF…I then informed her that the math in question is something people used to learn how to do in elementary school (before the advent of the calculator)…

  8. Until we start moving towards a system that embraces the fact that kids learn at different paces – and this fact alone does not mean they are stupid – we will continue to have failing students.

    For instance, if you go to my blog and click on “the youngest” under tags, you’ll see a series of blog post about my youngest son who experienced severe anxiety in 3rd grade. This was brought on largely due to very unrealistic expectations placed on him and his classmates by his teacher. This teacher was adamant that every student in his 3rd grade class would know their multiplication tables from 0 to 12 by the Christmas break.

    My husband and I worked with the youngest extensively. We soon ended up with a child who hated school, who was severely depressed and anxious and became suicidal. Yes, at 8, our youngest became suicidal.

    We made the decision to move him out of our neighborhood school and move him into a school in the district I work in. Our son went from a school that had the high API in our community to a school with one of the lowest in the community I worked in.

    It was one of the best decisions we made as parents. It was also when I started to realize that test scores don’t mean everything and should not be used to define kids or their schools.

    The youngest continues to not love math very much, but excels in all of his other subjects. He is entering into 11 grade in August.

  9. Here in Texas the 4th grade state tests, which should concentrate on mastery of basic computational skills, is packed with word problems and multiple step word problems.

    When I was in 4th grade we started learning our multiplication facts about halfway through the school year, now kids start with it in 2nd grade.

    All for the sake of the all glorious tests.

    • When I was in elementary school in the early 80s (in FL, if that matters) we learned multiplication tables in 2nd and 3rd grades. My homeschooled son is doing Singapore Math and they do multistep word problems in 3rd grade, but they are a small part of the work, perhaps 1 problem per section. Word problems are very common, though. Each new section is followed by a section of word problems using the new concept. However, giving tests involving word problems doesn’t work if the students can’t do the arithmetic, haven’t tried word problems before, or can’t read well.

      • Well that’s the problem. Most Math curriculum don’t allow time for the development of the arithmetic skills.

        I taught in Florida many years ago, before the days of Jeb Bush, and the schools were great. Now they concentrate on test prep like everyone else.

        Your son is benefiting greatly from the 1 to 1 instruction you are giving him, not surprised he is doing well.

        • palisadesk says:

          Well that’s the problem. Most Math curriculum don’t allow time for the development of the arithmetic skills.

          You’ve put your finger on a problem that is not limited to math, but perhaps is most evident there. Instructional time, even when very well used (obviously not always the case) is insufficient for the practice needed by many students to gain automaticity in basic skills and operations. This goes for reading skills, writing conventions, spelling, history and science foundation knowledge, etc.

          The ability to memorize and become automatic at various skills is not closely linked to IQ in the early years, but there is research to show that this aptitude improves with practice. Unfortunately more and more gets crowded INTO the curriculum and nothing seems ever to get taken OUT.

          I thought of this during the “Good to Great” discussion a few weeks ago. One precept Jim Collins mentioned that was common to the “Good to Great” leaders was that of a “Stop Doing This” list. Here’s an idea that public education should consider. We have waaaaay too many “new initiatives” and are never told to stop doing the failed one from last year. If we want to provide time for most students to master what they need to learn, some ballast has to be thrown overboard, so to speak.

    • When I was in school in Illinois (mid Baby Boom), we learned addition facts in first grade, but didn’t do multiplication and division till fourth grade. I remember fractions in fifth grade. I couldn’t take algebra till ninth grade, though the other junior high taught it in eighth.

      Even with a slower pace, many kids had trouble with math.

  10. Every time my kid reaches for a calculator to do his/her math homework (when they get math homework), I tell them no. The calculator isn’t needed for homework. I’ll let them use it if they want to check their work on some time intensive problems. Even then I’m hesitant because I feel they need to know how to manually check their answers.

  11. Heh…well, my math-fu isn’t always perfect Joanne… 🙂

  12. FYI, my 6 year old niece who is entering 1st grade in about 7 weeks or so knows addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and basic fractions…

    Of course, all those math worksheets I print out for her plus playing number games (along with reading, etc) probably helps a little…

  13. Richard Aubrey says:

    I believe teaching fundamentals is drill&kill, fascist, and conservative–think Saxon.
    My just-five year old granddaugher can do mental addition with single digits because her parents work with her. I asked her what nine plus one was. She answered “ten”. Then i asked her what ten take away one was. “Nine”, she said, after some thought. That was her first exposure to subtraction. Surprised me, and her mother more, since they’d not worked on subtraction. But she gets the concept.
    Point is, some practice is on the parents’ and sometimes grandparents’ dime/time.
    I dunno how many times it has to be said. In the military, you get the fundamentals and you get them and you get them and you don’t go on until you get them and from time to time even generals redo them. What’s the problem?
    Don’t answer that.