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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Learning math matters

Please "stop talking about so-called learning loss," writes Jo Boaler, a Stanford professor and math reform advocate, on the Hechinger Report.

Math scores are way down: The Education Recovery Scorecard estimates students lost half a year. But Boaler believes it doesn't matter. It's "quite clear" the students gained “knowledge and insights about the world, health challenges, global upheaval, exponential growth, technology, and ways to help their families and navigate complex social situations,” she writes.

This is not clear to me at all. If anything, it's quite clear that many lost the ability to navigate complex -- or even simple -- social situations, and I'm dubious about their knowledge and insights too. Screen time soared. That doesn't mean they're masters of technology. Physical and mental health declined.

Learning math matters, responds Fordham's Nathaniel Grossman. Two decades of growth was "wiped out in just three years," NAEP scores revealed. If we don't do something about learning loss, this generation could be locked out of high-paying STEM careers, he writes. "One Stanford economist estimates that it’ll reduce the lifetime earnings of students by $70,000 and cause a $28 trillion hit to the American economy."

Boaler, who is very influential, "has a history of dismissing the importance of content knowledge and skills for students," writes Grossman.

“We don’t need students to calculate quickly in math,” Boaler declared in a 2015 opinion for the Hechinger Report; “we need students who can ask good questions.” . . . In her 2016 Mathematical Mindsets, Boaler took schools to task for “giving students the impression that math facts are the essence of mathematics” or that the recall of math facts is essential for being a good mathematician.

This is a straw-man argument, writes Grossman. "Very few teachers or schools reduce math to the pure memorization of facts. But those facts are essential to solving complex math problems." Knowing, quickly and automatically, that 5 x 4 = 20 leaves a student's mind free for mathematical thinking and problem solving.

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