It’s harder to teach reading than math

“No excuses” charter schools that target low-income, minority students are raising math scores, reports the New York Times, but it’s harder to teach reading to disadvantaged students.

At Troy Prep Middle School, a charter school near Albany, students start fifth grade years behind in math and reading. Last year, all seventh graders scored proficient or advanced on state math exams; just over half met reading standards.

The 31 other schools in the Uncommon Schools network, which enrolls low-income students in Boston, New York City, Rochester and Newark, also have more students achieving proficiency in math than reading, said Brett Peiser, the network’s chief executive.

“Math is very close-ended,” Mr. Peiser said. Reading difficulties, he said, tend to be more complicated to resolve.

“Is it a vocabulary issue? A background knowledge issue? A sentence length issue? How dense is the text?” Mr. Peiser said, rattling off a string of potential reading roadblocks. “It’s a three-dimensional problem that you have to attack. And it just takes time.”

After three years in KIPP middle schools, students scored 11 months — more than a full year — above the national average in math, but only 8 months ahead in reading, according to a Mathematica Policy Research study.

Large public urban districts also find it easier to raise math scores than reading scores.

Studies have repeatedly found that “teachers have bigger impacts on math test scores than on English test scores,” said Jonah Rockoff, an economist at Columbia Business School.

The children from low-income, less-educated families start school with a vocabulary and knowledge deficit compared to the children of well-educated parents, notes the Times. “By contrast, children learn math predominantly in school.”

 “Your mother or father doesn’t come up and tuck you in at night and read you equations,” said Geoffrey Borman, a professor at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the University of Wisconsin. “But parents do read kids bedtime stories, and kids do engage in discussions around literacy, and kids are exposed to literacy in all walks of life outside of school.”

Reading also requires background knowledge of cultural, historical and social references. Math is a more universal language of equations and rules.

Common Core standards could make it harder for disadvantaged children to do well in math, Deborah L. Ball, dean of University of Michigan education school, told the Times.  “As math has become more about talking, arguing and writing, it’s beginning to require these kinds of cultural resources that depend on something besides school.”

Students from Mexican immigrant families can excel in math, teachers and principals at high-performing, high-minority schools told me when I was working on the BrokenPromises report. Math is a new language for all students, they said. I hope Ball’s prediction doesn’t come true.

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