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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Students aren't bouncing back in math

Math skills fell during "remote education" and many students aren't bouncing back, reports an education reporting collaborative in a series called The Math Problem. "On average students’ math knowledge is about half a school year behind where it should be, according to education analysts." The neediest kids lost the most.

In Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, Jennifer Matthews' eighth-graders don't understand basic math concepts, such as fractions, the veteran teacher said. Only half do the homework. Many seem "indifferent to understanding her pre-Algebra and Algebra I lessons."

Even Townview School of Science and Engineering, a selective Dallas magnet school, is coping with skill gaps, says teacher Lance Barasch. In a summer program for incoming ninth graders, an exercise in factoring polynomials had to wait for him to explain basic math terminology. Students didn't understand words such as “term” and “coefficient.”

I was in kindergarten when the Soviets launched Sputnik, and patriotic Americans vowed to catch "Johnny" up with the obnoxious "Ivan." U.S. teachers worried that students were learning math by rote, but didn't understand math concepts. "New math" was supposed to solve that. But American kids continued to struggle with math. The need to teach conceptual understanding was rediscovered again and again over the years.

When concepts are stressed, "students grasp underlying math relationships, sometimes making these discoveries on their own," the story states.

And sometimes they get very, very frustrated.

Sarah Powell, a University of Texas professor and Science of Math advocate, said shifting too far toward teaching concepts risks losing students who still need to master foundational skills. “We actually do have to teach, and it is less sexy and it’s not as interesting,” she said.

Years ago, California's Education Department announced a new math curriculum focused on teaching concepts rather than procedures. Instead of memorizing the boring old multiplication tables, students would explore, discover, dig deeper into the meaning of math.

I asked an ed department official if elementary teachers -- notoriously math averse -- understood math well enough to make the new strategy work. He sighed. "It's a problem," he said. "They'll need a lot of training." I asked plans to provide that training, noting that it's often promised but not delivered. He sighed again.

A decade later, there was another push. This time, they said, teachers were going to teach conceptual understanding.

Many preschool and early elementary teachers don't like math, don't understand it well and avoid teaching it, reports Hechinger's Ariel Gilreath in another story in the series.

At the Erikson Institute's summer conference in Chicago, teachers read a story about “Wendi,” a fictional preschool teacher who loves reading but struggles in math. "In the story, she decided to skip math concepts, leaving them for the teachers her students would have next year," Gilreath writes. "Across the room, people nodded their heads as they listened."

“I am Wendi. Wendi is me,” said Ivory McCormick, a kindergarten teacher from Atlanta.

Teachers practiced building large, 10-sided shapes out of colorful blocks, an exercise they might do with their students.

Some said they chose early childhood education to avoid higher-level math.

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