An Honest Response to “Why Americans are bad at math”

Do you have that person that you can vent to? When something happens in your life, and you don’t necessarily want to discuss it, but you just need to vent? Well for me that person is my husband. He has to listen to me go off on long rants about education. He kindly listens and nods his head. Every once in a while he will ask for clarification about an unfamiliar acronym, or which of the three people named Katie I am referring to. One of my common go to conversations is math in America. I am in my seventh year of teaching math and have gotten to teach 8 different courses in 7th-12th grade mathematics. I have worked with the best and brightest as well as the kids that just getting them to pick up a pencil is a struggle.

So when my husband came across the article Why are Americans so bad at math by Mike Colagrossi he was excited to pass it along. The author goes through and outlines three major points about math in America.

  1. Americans are consistently scoring lower than their international peers.
  2. The way America teach’s math is actually the worst way to teach math.
  3. He finishes his paper by trying to make sense of the disconnect between some of the most brilliant minds and the lack of success in math across the board in America.

Mr. Colagrossi states that they most common way to teach math in America is the use of rote memorization. According to Colagrossi, math should not be viewed as steps to memorize, but rather a language that needs to be studied and understood. He describes math as “a way to speak and manipulate the world in a logic and reason-based system…” I most definitely agree with him on this point. I have the pleasure of working with students who have just recently entered the country. Since math is a universal language it is easier for me to teach students with a variety of native languages than for teachers in other content areas. Language barriers are weaker in math since math is a common ground for all people.

So many of the topics that Colagrossi brings up are things I have spoken about with my husband. There is definitely an issue with how math is taught in American school systems. As I was reading this article I was agreeing with everything he said. Yet, when I got to the end and really began processing what I had read, I found myself getting upset. Extremely upset.

My initial take away from the article was that the blame was solely on the teachers when that is not the case. I completely agree that we need to change how we teach math. Approaching mathematics as a language is crucial to the success of students. But there is so much more at play for how math is taught in the classroom. I believe before you start looking at the points Colagrossi brings up it is important to take a step back and look at a broader scope of education in America.

Standards

Since I live in Arkansas, and have been educated and taught here my whole life, I will discuss the Arkansas Common Core State Standards in my response. In Algebra 1 there are 23 major clusters and a total of 49 standards. In Algebra 2 there are 29 major clusters and 59 standards. In Geometry there are 16 major clusters and 39 standards. These standards are not topics that can be taught in a few days. To truly become proficient in them it takes weeks of teaching, assessing, reteaching, and reassessing.

Any teacher knows that it is not practical to believe that every child will become proficient on every standard by the end of the course. Typically, teachers struggle to get through all of the standards by the end of the school year. This means that teachers have to understand that they won’t have enough time to teach all of the content, and have to decide as a PLC which standards can be pushed to the end of the year.

In my seven years of teaching it has always been the statistics and data unit that we do not reach. The problem with that is students get all the way to their graduation and have never had statistics and data in a math class. An approach to help combat this is to identify essential standards per content level that every child must become proficient in by the end of the school year. Identifying 3-5 will keep it manageable and realistic for all students.

State Wide Exams

In Arkansas we are also required to give the ACT Aspire to all students 3rd-10th grade. What is covered on the test does not necessarily match up with these standards. Our schools are rated and judged based on student performance on these “non-high stake”, high stake tests. As an educator I educate my students in a way that will teach them a deeper understanding of the why and how behind mathematics. I hate to admit this, but at the end of the day I ALSO have to prepare my students to do well on their test. I am held accountable for teaching ALL of the Algebra 1 standards and preparing students for their next class.

Best teaching practices today would look like students being asked to problem solve, taking their time, and working collaboratively. But at the end of the school year we ask students to solve 45 questions in 60 minutes, work alone, and answer questions that are formatted completely differently than they will ever see again. These two approaches do not line up and it does not make sense why we assess our students understanding when it does not represent the classroom or real life.

Education in America

Some days I have to use all of my willpower to not break down. I feel that our system has failed so many students. There is enough data to show that if you hold a child back due to lack of proficiency on grade level material, there could be terrible social and emotional consequences for the child. So we have a choice; pass students on to the next grade even though they are not ready or hold them back to gain the academic knowledge needed and face other consequences down the road. Typically, you will see children getting passed from one grade to the next even if they are not ready.  Math is a language so if you are missing the foundations of the language you cannot progress. Students get to 9th grade and yet test on a 4th grade math level.

As much as I agree with Mr. Colagrossi and his assessment of the way math is being taught in America, I think you cannot put more on the shoulders of the teachers without a huge educational shift to support student learning. Common Core Standards are not going to change our entire educational system. Opening more charter schools only supports the privileged students who can go; this is also not the answer to our problem. Focusing on deeper understanding on a few standards versus touching on several topics, revising the assessment of students understanding, and providing training for teachers on the language of math are just a few of my suggestions.

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