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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

What about math? Schools focus on reading, not so much on math

Many schools are training teachers, hiring tutors and changing curricula to improve reading instruction, writes Holly Korey on The 74. But what about math?


More students were struggling in math than in reading before the pandemic, and math scores fell the most when schools were closed or disrupted. Students who don't improve will be shut out of most high-paying careers as they get older.


However, most states don't require help for struggling math students. "While 32 states require schools to provide teacher training, evidence-based curricula and support plans for reading, only seven states have similar laws on the books for math," Korbey writes.

 

“It is typical that most schools screen students in reading and have pretty good intervention systems set up in reading, but that isn’t the case in math,” says Sarah Powell, an associate professor at the University of Texas, Austin.


While 48 percent of schools employ trained reading specialists to work with struggling students, while only 23 percent have math specialists, Korbey writes.  


New elementary teachers often are poorly prepared to teach math and lack confidence in their math understanding, according to a 2022 report from the National Council on Teacher Quality.

“Many elementary teachers do not themselves feel adequately confident of their own basic math skills,” researchers wrote. “They may dedicate less time to teaching math than students need, unsure of how to help their students avoid common misconceptions and errors.” 


While there's less consensus on the "science of math" than there is for reading, Korbey writes, "research-based practices meant to help struggling math students like explicit, systematic instruction, using mathematical language and number lines, and timed activities to increase fluency, also have strong evidence in making general math instruction more effective for everybody," according to Elizabeth Albro, commissioner of education research at the Institute of Education Sciences.


Beware of fads, Australian educator Greg Ashman tells Education HQ's Sarah Duggan. A popular new program, Building Thinking Classrooms, promises to foster "deep thinking" in math by having groups of students solve problems on white boards. It's an old "discovery learning" idea doesn't work well for novice learners, says Ashman. “You actually need to teach them things, not just let them get on with trying to solve problems – you actually have to teach them some strategies they can use to solve the problem." He predicts "the maths equivalent of whole language."


San Francisco school and city officials spent $71,000 on a two-week trip to Japan to study a problem-based math curriculum called Project IMPULS,, reports Josh Koehn in the San Francisco Standard. That included $4,000 for each of 13 participants paid to the Lesson Study Alliance.


Both the school district and the city are facing financial crises. The trip was funded by the city’s Department of Children, Youth and Their Families.


“Are there not cheaper ways to get to know the program?” asked Siva Raj, who helped launch the 2022 school board recall campaign. “Do you actually have to travel to Japan to learn about it? Can they not get on Zoom?”


The program is credited with raising test scores at San Francisco's Muir Elementary, and is now being tried at three other elementary schools. They could have taken the bus.

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20 Comments


Heresolong
Heresolong
Feb 23

Spent four years at Ed school getting my teaching cert while working full time and listening to the Elementary Ed majors whine about how hard math was and how much they hated it. Now I teach their product at high school and its depressing.

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Malcolm Kirkpatrick
Malcolm Kirkpatrick
Feb 22

The finding that Elementary Education majors are Math averse is several decades old. That's a pity, since Math is the simplest subject. A well-scripted self-paced curriculum could get most children through the material that we call "Algebra I" by 6th grade if we wanted to do that. Aspiring Elementary Ed majors teachers themselves could work through the curriculum.

Really smart people worked for thousands of years to make Math as simple as possible. Why do schools throw all that work away?

Institutions shape incentives. Enrollment determines school budgets. The current K-12 structure rewards maximally inefficient use of students' time.

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Jeff Melcher
Jeff Melcher
Feb 26
Replying to

Deflecting. The goal is not making wizards in calculus to fill slots at MIT. The goal is providing most students basic competence in algebra to finish high school with a diploma that means something useful. The goal is not to turn everybody, and certainly not every woman, into a stay-at-home-tiger-mom trad-wife. The goal is to empower math teachers -- the majority of whom are women attempting to teach arithmetic in elementary school -- with mathematically correct, well scripted, textbooks that do not require them to be, themselves, mathematical MIT-caliber wizards.


Those textbooks exist.


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Dennis Ashendorf
Dennis Ashendorf
Feb 22

Arithmetic/Math Instruction is one topic & Lesson Study is another. Japan succeeded greatly in tuning its math instruction decades ago and continually refines it through one-lesson-per-year lesson study, where details like 'is teaching 7+5 better than 8+3' in a lesson are examined.


The discipline of lesson study doesn't fit US attitudes well or easily. Consider the history of Quality Circles in manufacturing, for example. If Japanese math itself is the goal, which would fit US culture, then the curriculum from Japan-Math.com may suffice; if the small company can be encouraged to complete the Americanization of Grade 5. You could start with a Kindergarten cohort, but that by itself, contradicts American culture where all grades adopt a new curriculum simultaneously. S…

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Dennis Ashendorf
Dennis Ashendorf
Feb 23
Replying to

Thank you for both correcting me and giving me hope. In California, we have/had seven year adoptions. Every seven years all grades get a new set/new supplier of books. COVID messed this up a bit and a district doesn't have to change.


I've never encountered cohort selection. Start with ACME Math in K and those students move through the system with the sequence. Years later, MAXMO Math starts with K.

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m_t_anderson
Feb 22

New elementary teachers often are poorly prepared to teach math and lack confidence in their math understanding,


Not surprising when you consider the common academic trajectory of someone who starts college with a mediocre STEM education: struggle as a biology major, switch to business, struggle with accounting and finance, and finally switch to education. And then there's the aspiring math majors who bench themselves as Math Ed majors (I spent one summer teaching six of these the meanings of derivatives and integrals). No wonder elementary and secondary math education is the pits.

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