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When Math Doesn't Add Up

Published in ChicagoNow, May 22, 2017

A girl hates math, so she writes a letter: “Dear Math, I wish you would grow up and solve your own problems.” Funny? Not so much. For my generation of women and for girls today, math is still a boy’s club with some token females. It is also a white boys club, with fewer children of color taking advanced mathematics classes.

In my community, it has always been possible for children who are “gifted in math” to accelerate by joining older children learning more advanced math. In the past, that opportunity had been based on teacher recommendations and parental desires, resulting in some kids who were pushed ahead but unable to do the work as it became more challenging.

In the spirit of our test-obsessed educational culture, scores on math placement tests became the way to open the door for kids entering middle school (sixth grade) to qualify for an accelerated math track. The parental chatter on my community’s Facebook page, however, is rather disheartening. Once again, there seems to be a gender bias, with very few girls accelerating. Parents also questioned why advanced math was so white.

You could certainly question whether combining the test scores on a district placement test for math with scores on the math portion of the Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) test results in a valid assessment of which children will succeed in advanced math. MAP is a computerized test that measures ability by adjusting the difficulty of the questions based on how well the student has answered previous questions. It is not clear why the school district also has children take its own placement test.

Parents complained that this year’s fifth grade scores were “strangely low.” They wondered if only the most exceptional math students would have the opportunity to try the accelerated math curriculum, leaving out kids who missed the cut score but were motivated to tackle the more challenging material. This might be an acceptable approach if the grade level math offered to everyone else, including these motivated children, were challenging and differentiated. Apparently, that is not the case.

As a former teacher, when my students performed poorly on a test, I saw two possibilities. The more palatable explanation was that the test was unfair did not give my students the opportunity to demonstrate what they had learned. But there was always the possibility that the fault was mine. I had failed to teach them what they needed to learn and had to examine my curriculum, methods, and practices.

This leads me down the slippery slope of the math curriculum itself and how well it is being taught in elementary school. I must confess I was a victim of “new math” as a high school student. As a consequence, I never learned how to actually do math. Nor did I comprehend the theories behind what I was doing. It was a lose-lose. I declined to take math as a senior in high school or in college, so my math education ended when I was sixteen.

I worry the curriculum my grandkids are learning is leading them down a similar path. Showing their work so the teacher can see how they derived their answer and, if the answer is wrong, where they went astray, makes sense. Writing a paragraph explaining their thinking does not, especially for younger children. I remember my granddaughter answering, “Because I just knew” once and being marked wrong, even though her answer was correct.

There is an assumption in elementary school that all teachers are able to teach every subject well. That may be true in lower grades, but in grades three through five, there are some teachers who are uncomfortable with the demands of teaching more advanced math using a curriculum that they don’t fully understand. They are not capable of differentiating the curriculum to meet the needs of students at both the high and low end of the spectrum. The result may be that children with different learning styles end up the losers.

Here is where white privilege and gender bias enter the picture. Highly motivated children with highly motivated and well-off parents have access to tutors and materials to make up for less than ideal teaching. That gives them a leg up on passing the tests to access the more enriched and advanced curriculum. Other kids who, like the girl in the joke, are math haters by the time they are ten or whose families have neither the time nor the means to supplement the education they receive at school are left behind.

I don’t pretend to have the answer to this complex issue. I’m just wondering if we need to think about all aspects of the problem: the validity of the tests in predicating success, the efficacy of the curriculum, the quality of the teaching, and the inherent biases in a system that results in a white boy’s club at the highest levels of math instruction.

All of this leaves me wondering how far we have come from my failed journey through the Beberman new math curriculum in the early sixties. For me, Tom Lehrer’s satirical song about new math hit the nail on the head. For those of you struggling to teach today’s math to children or at a loss to help them with their math homework, enjoy:


by Laurie Levy
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