What's Our Problem with Math?

Writing in the New York Times Magazine, Elizabeth Green charts the pedigree of our long national struggle to be good at math. 

The new math of the ‘60s, the new new math of the ‘80s and today’s Common Core math all stem from the idea that the traditional way of teaching math simply does not work. As a nation, we suffer from an ailment that John Allen Paulos, a Temple University math professor and an author, calls innumeracy — the mathematical equivalent of not being able to read. On national tests, nearly two-thirds of fourth graders and eighth graders are not proficient in math. More than half of fourth graders taking the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress could not accurately read the temperature on a neatly drawn thermometer. (They did not understand that each hash mark represented two degrees rather than one, leading many students to mistake 46 degrees for 43 degrees.) On the same multiple-choice test, three-quarters of fourth graders could not translate a simple word problem about a girl who sold 15 cups of lemonade on Saturday and twice as many on Sunday into the expression “15 + (2×15).” Even in Massachusetts, one of the country’s highest-performing states, math students are more than two years behind their counterparts in Shanghai.
 

Drawing upon the experience of Japan, Green says it doesn't have to be this way. "Of all the lessons Japan has to offer the United States," Green writes, "the most important might be the belief in patience and the possibility of change."

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Marie Rehbein
3 years 3 months ago
When my daughters were in the early elementary grades at a Catholic school that always had relatively low math performance on standardized tests, some teacher or parents had the idea that the kids needed to become faster at doing arithmetic and so timed arithmetic tests were given every so often. Due to this, my daughters told me they were not good at math. I told them that that was not math. My older daughter, now at a public high school, scored 5's on the AP Calculus AB and BC tests recently and hopes to take Calc III at the university this fall while she is still in high school. Interesting fact regarding the NYT article is that the honored Japanese teacher used what he believed to be the American way of teaching math to achieve great success, while real American schools don't actually do that.
Stanley Kopacz
3 years 3 months ago
I wonder if the problem with math isn't like the problem with foreign language. Children naturally acquire language before the age of 14 but we start teaching them after that age. Maybe math is like a language and we wait too long to start teaching it. My father gave me a little book on geometry when I was 10. It had a lot of little ruler and protractor exercises like bisecting an angle. When I took the classes at age 15, no problem.
Stanley Kopacz
3 years 3 months ago
I wonder if the problem with math isn't like the problem with foreign language. Children naturally acquire language before the age of 14 but we start teaching them after that age. Maybe math is like a language and we wait too long to start teaching it. My father gave me a little book on geometry when I was 10. It had a lot of little ruler and protractor exercises like bisecting an angle. When I took the classes at age 15, no problem.
J Cosgrove
3 years 3 months ago
I was at a wedding this weekend where I talked with a close friend about his 5 year old boy who is entering kindergarten in a few weeks. His little boy was at the wedding too did the 4 times tables for me and was proud of what he could do. His father said he had been watching some of the Khan Academy videos and he is just 5. I highly recommend the Khan Academy which covered a lot of topics but about half are on some form of math. They start with beginning arithmetic and go all the way to differential equations and linear algebra. I have sampled many of them and was surprised at how fast I learned something that had given me trouble before. So the solution to our math education problems may be already here or just a few experiments a way. On line education is not a complete replacement for the classroom teacher but can supplement what is being taught in the classroom with lots of practical examples. To this last point, I was once in a Ph.D program and one of the statistical courses was being taught by the recognized expert in the field. I also happened to know someone who received her Ph.D at the same time as this professor. She said he was originally thought of as one of the backward people in the program especially in statistics. But he persevered and would seek out books on statistics and do every problem in the book. When he finished a book he got a new book. He was now very dapper, well dressed, quite confident and traveled the world giving lectures on this esoteric form of statistics. He also made a ton of money doing this.

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