It really is about the math

It really is about the math.

Every time I hear someone proudly announce how bad he or she is at math, I am reminded about the neglect of the American school system.

Every time I read an article about how our own U.S. Education Secretary thinks public funded school choice is the answer to our “failing” schools, I want to throw my computer across the room.

The most common critiques of public education in America are so often misguided. Not enough choice, bad parenting, lazy teachers, lousy teachers, misguided administrators, greedy teacher’s unions, poverty, too many school days, too few school days, the list goes on. The nations with the world’s best public school systems are not so because of school choice. Those nations do not breed better parents. Their teachers do not have better work ethics or work habits than ours. And those nations are not wealthier than ours, either. There are plenty of countries with average household incomes far lower than those in the United States that perennially whip the pants off of us in international assessments.

And then there is income inequality and property tax inequity, creating a dichotomy of haves and have-nots from one town to the next. You always want the best, most dedicated community of educators and education stakeholders in every school district, and there is inequity across the country when it comes to that. It’s a major factor, but it’s not the only major factor.

The pockets of our taxpayers feed the inequity of resources from district to district, and when one district has more resources than another, and can pay its teachers better than another, its schools are more likely to thrive. Poorer districts do not typically perform as well.

But on top of that, there is another problem. I’d like to now pick up where my opening paragraph left off.

Huge numbers of Americans hate math with such giddy fervor it has impacted our entire culture. We are a math-phobic nation. You, dear reader, are more than likely a math hater. Sometime between about second grade and middle school, math turned ugly for you, and to this day you avoid it when you can. I bet you are better than you realize, though; I bet you are a good problem solver. As adults, we have to be. Still, our memories of learning math are so often traumatic. At some point, numbers, calculations, equations, formulae and algorithms began to haunt us.

Here’s why. Numbers, formulae and algorithms are to math what phonics is to reading and writing. Too many times math is taught like it’s only about numbers and operations and formulae. If we only taught letter sounds and sound combinations in literacy, more people would hate reading too. But we generally fail to teach math for what it is: creative, innovative, linguistic and artistic problem solving.

And that is a large problem. The good news is that the trends in education are finally beginning to address it. There is more mathematical discourse happening in classrooms than there has been in the past. It’s still mostly about numbers, equations, algorithms and calculations, but we’re making progress toward presenting math as more of a collaborative, thought-provoking, risk-taking, mystery-investigating category of problem solving relevant to everything in the world rather than the one tedious and seemingly irrelevant subject everyone loves to hate. But the not-so-good news is we still have a very long way to go.

Middle school teachers have unique perspectives in that they are required to both evaluate the knowledge and proficiency gained from where they are coming from (elementary school), as well as make sure their students are prepared for their next destination (high school and advanced academics). For eleven years, as part of my job, I have paid close attention to this progression, particularly as it relates to math. Here’s what happens.

Before and throughout kindergarten, we are natural, eager learners of math and literacy. We want to learn about numbers and quantity, as well as letters and the sounds they make when combined with other letters. It gets even better when we assign meaning. Groups of letters become phonemes and eventually words that have meaning. Numbers become symbols that represent quantities that can be broken apart, put back together, combined with other numbers, assembled into groups, even split into micro-parts. We assign meaning to numbers in our earliest problem solving efforts: I picked seven, beautiful, juicy apples one day last fall. I ate two of them right away. How many did I have after that? It’s a very real world, practical problem for a six year-old to solve, and when a six year-old solves it, it’s a pretty big deal. Think of it as the equivalent to reading a story for the first time and understanding it. Math is exciting for the first few years of school, and as long as there are decent, practical stories to tell and mysteries to solve, we remain mostly engaged.

Children’s literacy focuses a lot on the fluency and automaticity of phonemes and letter combinations, but then we become devoted as teachers to getting them excited about reading stories and books and opening up a universe of wonder. In math, we also focus a lot on fluency and automaticity in the early years, but of math facts and properties of operations. But that’s where we tend to leave our eager young learners high and dry. Instead of devoting our practice to getting our students excited about taking risks and solving mysteries and opening up a universe of mathematical wonder, we stick to the properties and number combinations. Yes, we stir in a small amount of abstract and often bizarre problem solving in an attempt to force connections. But fewer and fewer young people get excited about math as they progress through third, fourth and fifth grade, which focuses largely on understanding fractions, simplifying fractions, comparing fractions, adding and subtracting fractions, finding fractions on a number line, multiplying and dividing fractions, and converting fractions to whole numbers, decimals and percents. Interestingly, if you ask a middle school math teacher what his or her students struggle the most with, it’s usually fractions. It’s more or less the same with incoming ninth graders at the high school level.

Now upper elementary math isn’t just about fractions; there’s also geometry, measurement, and data analysis, among other things, so the pressure is on our heroic elementary teachers to swiftly progress from one new concept to another. This week we’re multiplying fractions, and next week we’re measuring angles so that the following week we can divide fractions. Then there’s a test. Teachers and the writers of the curricula they work with go to extremes to make that process fun for kids, but math is still the subject most children learn to fear, and eventually avoid, as they grow older.

As a result of this, our children are not becoming competent and confident problem solvers. When we don’t allow them the time to experiment, take risks, analyze, critique, defend and revise their problem solving strategies, they grow up unable to recognize when a problem needs solving, let alone how to solve it. One might even draw conclusions that this type of phenomenon could contribute to a cultural crisis of sorts, that in turn could result in, say, worrisome election results.

And that brings us back to the priorities of those who make big decisions about public school funding. We know our schools are unevenly supported, and we know they perform inconsistently. Rather than adding fuel to the inequity by encouraging families to abandon their neighborhood schools, we should be investing in excellent teacher training in all universities, and state-of-the-art, engaging academics for our public school attendees.

If we really want to leave no children behind, or if we really want every student to succeed, or if we want to even compete in the race to the top, we have to step aside from the race and take the time to problem solve. We have the resources.

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.