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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Comments

  1. Richard Aubrey says:

    “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.”

    Asking questions like this implies either difficulty or impossibility. Whatever the motivation, the implied conclusion(s) are bogus.
    The density of the text is the same in a test, from one school to the next. So is the sentence length. That leaves background knowledge and vocabulary. And, from what we know, people have actually gotten both without any school attendance at all.
    Which is to say, the home is important. We all know this, but it is sometimes not quite quite to say so.
    While lamenting poor preparation in the home is one thing, suggesting changes is another. I expect jab could weigh in on why it’s awful just to suggest it. Which would indicate one of the difficulties.

  2. Roger Sweeny says:

    Primed by Education Realist, herself a math teacher, I wondered as I was reading this post, what math it was about. ER says that there is a big difference between arithmetic and abstract math, roughly what comes before algebra and what comes after, what was once math in K-8 and what was high school math. Success in the first is no guarantee of success in the second. In fact, everywhere there is a big fall-off. Because abstract math is qualitatively different. For many people, it is much, much harder–if not impossible.

    Clicking over to the Times article, it all seems to be about grades 5-8. With enough practice and support, students are more successful at raising their scores on arithmetic tests than they are at raising their scores on English tests.

    I do not find this surprising. However, this says nothing about how easy it will be to raise scores on tests of algebra and beyond. My guess is that it will be even harder than raising English test scores.

  3. 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.”

    Well, four issues were enumerated, and others are implied. It’s certainly more than a three dimensional problem – bit of a silly statement on Mr. Preiser’s part.

    Roger – traditional operations, measurement, numbers and representaions, basic geometry, a little teensy pre-algebra.

    http://www.nysedregents.org/grade5/mathematics/20100505book1.pdf

    I think a better statement is that it’s easier to teach arithmetic than reading. I’d don’t know what the comparison is between capital M math and literacy goals; but I’d come down on the side of it being harder. Most people can get Shakespeare. Trying to prove that some infinities are indeed larger than others or that 1+1=2 is a different beast.

  4. Great post! While at a failed math task it is relatively easy to pinpoint the underlying cause, this is much harder when reading comes to a standstill.

    Often unknown or unclear words are the cause, but remediating these road blocks for a large number of students during classroom time is nearly impossible.
    This is further complicated by the fact that with words, simply “understanding” them is not enough — the learner needs to gain automaticity for them, a level of knowing where no brain activity is needed to understand and apply the term confidently.
    Research shows that students who are not at grade level in reading/writing by 4th grade frequently fall off the bandwagon. As classroom instruction switches from learning to read to reading to learn, there is too much of a disconnect if students still struggle with reading and vocabulary.
    This is why LearnThat Foundation makes free personalized vocabulary and spelling tutoring available to all public school 2nd and 3rd grade classrooms. Since it inception, this grant program, Vocabulary Junction, has closed millions of word gaps, and we’re looking forward to helping more students reach their goals.