Too Much Math and Reading in Schools?

My title and role in my district is Math Strategist.  I love that title, because it sounds really important, and because it implies that I get to concoct strategies.  Who doesn’t love problem solving?  The word “math” seems to create some uneasiness when I tell people I am a math strategist, though; they seem to think I am some sort of mental mutant who loves numbers and formulae.  It is always assumed that I have an advanced math degree and that I can solve complex math problems in my head very quickly.  Neither of these things is true about me.  In fact, as a child, right up through most of high school, I didn’t much like math, and there are aspects of math I don’t like to this day.   I like all the things that math applies to, though, like politics, economics, geography, science, art, religion, and of course sports.  And I love to read.  I have half-read books scattered all over the house.  I like reading nonfiction especially, but I love a good novel, especially the kind where everything in the life of the protagonist falls apart.  Don’t ask me why, I just like dark themes.

When I say, “I love reading,” I really mean, “I love learning and being entertained from what I read.”  Because, you know, I wouldn’t want anyone to assume that I am some sort of mental mutant who loves phonics, punctuation and parts of speech.  I have a relatively solid handle on grammar and even syntax, but I wouldn’t say I am advanced or an expert in that area.  

Numeracy and literacy are the foundations of one’s ability to decode, construct and understand the elements of the languages of math and reading, but by no means are those the most attractive parts of either thing.  I do know individuals who are experts at numeracy instruction, who are fascinated with childhood development and what is happening in a child’s brain when he or she is developing mathematical fluencies. These people are necessary to develop our pedagogy for early math instruction.  The same is true for the early literacy experts out there who head up the research on how children’s brains work when they start reading.  We need them to help us understand how to reach children in the classroom, when to introduce skills and concepts, and how to pace our instruction.  Many teachers find these pedagogies interesting, but I think most would conclude that they are all part of the ultimate goal of giving our students access to the tools that allow them to learn about things and solve problems.  We want them to love learning, and to love solving problems.  

Nearly fifteen years ago with the advent of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), it was our dismal math and reading scores that put our government into a panic and created a decade-long trend toward drastically increasing math and reading instruction in schools and focusing our standardized assessments on measuring progress in those areas.  Science, social studies and the arts took a major hit in many schools.  Here’s an article on it from 2006, just four years after NCLB became a law.  In the NYTimes piece, the concept of cutting social studies, science and arts instruction to make more room for math and reading instruction is controversial, but presented as almost inevitable and even cutting edge.  It was almost as if they were saying, “Yeah, it tastes kinda nasty, but all the cool kids are doing it.”  

I don’t want to get too much into the inappropriateness of competitive incentives for federal money toward education, but we should note that that was a big part of NCLB’s perceived failure.  Ever since, schools have been faced with both incentives and penalties to entice educators to produce higher test scores.  The original goal of NCLB was the ridiculous and impossible outcome of 100% proficiency by the year 2014, which of course did not come close to happening.  

Ten years later, in 2016, the new U.S. Commissioner of Education completely retracted the philosophy of saturating our students with math and reading instruction. Here’s an article from earlier this year, featuring the new Commissioner condemning the concept of cutting science, social studies and the arts in order to double or triple the time kids receive math and reading instruction.

One of the skeptics in the 2006 NYT piece refers to the practice of focusing too much on math and reading as something like a violin student only practicing scales and never actually getting to play any music.

I like that analogy a lot.

When I’m not being a math strategist, I am a part time musician.  I write and sing songs, but most of my experience performing is as a drummer.  I have played with rock and roll, jazz, country, even bluegrass musicians, and those experiences are very special to me.  There is no other feeling in the world like making music with a group of people, weaving rhythms, and layering harmonies.  Keith Richards likens it to levitating, and I agree.  It is almost spiritual.  But part of what makes me enjoy playing drums so much is mathematics.  As a drummer, I can drive a rhythm with all sorts of time signatures, represented as fractions, with the numerator being the number of beats in a given measure, and the denominator representing the “size” of the beat (or type of note) being played.  It’s a lot like regular fractions, where the numerator might represent the number of pieces of pizza, and the denominator represents the size of each part.  I can also help make sure every band member gets an equal amount of money at the end of the night.

In the WP article, Commissioner John King, Jr. states the following:

“I hear frequently and passionately from educators and families who feel that key elements of what makes up a well-rounded education have been neglected in favor of too tight a focus on math and reading. Sometimes, that’s because of constraints on resources, time, and money.”

That’s a correct assessment, I’d say.  But we also need to look at exactly what it is we are doing with our resources, time and money that can make math and reading come alive for students.  Really, math and reading instruction should be happening all day, in concert with science instruction, social studies instruction, arts instruction, and physical education.  And, science, social studies, the arts and sports should be showing up in our math and literacy lessons on a regular basis as well, and in innovative and engaging ways.  We can’t be sacrificing the song and dance in order to focus on the foundation and structure only.  That’s not how the world works.  We need to take those songs, the science experiments, the historical events, the great athletic endeavors we strive to complete, and admire them, create them, deconstruct them, examine them, reconstruct them, break them, and fix them.  That way, learning comes alive, and the reading, writing and arithmetic becomes more vivid and important than ever.

Are you someone who teaches and/or thinks about the classroom during summer months? Have you been problem solving this summer? Inspired by something you have read?  Visit the Facebook Page or send me an email and tell me about it.  

James Tatum Gale

About James Tatum Gale

I have been a teacher in Maine schools for twelve years, and a writer and musician since childhood. I acquired a Master's degree in Teaching from USM, and a Certificate in Math Leadership from UMF. My undergraduate degree is in Philosophy with a concentration in Comparative Religion from the University of Maine (1994). I live with my wife, Erin, and my dog, Sally, in Bowdoinham.