Math Teaching in America: Where is it going?

No one who has gone through the American education system would deny that our math teaching approach is broken. Anyone can look in any newspaper and see that math test scores are below acceptable and not getting any better. The Utah State Board of Education released the latest standardized test scores just a week ago and to no surprise, the overall proficiency rating for all Utah students in mathematics was only 38.7%.1 Jo Boaler, a British education author and Professor of Mathematics Education at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, states that the most surprising and appalling statistic in recent years is that “60 percent of the 13 million two-year college students in the U.S. are currently placed into remedial math courses; 75 percent of them fail or drop the courses and leave college with no degree.”2

In the educational system, we suffer from a wide range of stereotypes that effect our expectations and teaching styles and can alter a child’s life path. That is hefty stuff which, unfortunately, American society at large treats very lightly. The educational system tells students from the time they are in 2nd grade that math is not for everyone but only for “math people.” The profile of a “math person” is a white male, from a middle to upper class family, according to a study done at the University of Washington.3 A study published in the March/April issue of Child Development, suggests that, for girls, lack of interest in mathematics may come from culturally communicated messages about math being more appropriate for boys than for girls.3 Furthermore, Boaler states, This thinking, as well as the teaching practices that go with it, have provided the perfect conditions for the creation of a math underclass. Narrow mathematics teaching combined with low and stereotypical expectations for students are the two main reasons that the U.S. is in dire mathematical straights.”2  

So as you can see, things are not going very well, but what are we doing to change it? A lot of stock has been placed in the hope that the new Common Core Standards will help bring the knowledge and fill in the missing gaps that weren’t taught to our students in their younger years. According to the Common Core website, the Common Core is a set of clear college and career ready standards for kindergarten through 12th grade.4 These standards help guide teachers and districts in their curriculum planning. Jo Boaler’s book, What’s Math Got to Do With it?, is filled with research on how to reach out to students by broadening our perspective of math to include a focus on problem solving, reasoning, asking questions and representing scenarios in multiple forms.2 When we bring these other focuses into the forefront of our classrooms, we help students perform at higher levels which leads to more students taking advanced mathematics. Boaler strongly believes that the “Common Core mathematics is more challenging than the mathematics it will replace. It is also more interesting for students and many times closer to the math that is needed in 21st-century life and work.”2 The increase of all students’ interest in mathematics decreases the achievement gap by engaging students of all races, socio-economic status and gender.

One of the main goals in the Common Core will be for students to spend less time practicing isolated methods and more time solving applied problems that involve connecting different methods, using technology, understanding multiple representations of ideas and justifying their thinking. There are good foundational reasons for this as justification and reasoning lie at the heart of mathematics. “Scientists work to prove or disprove new theories by finding many cases that work or counter-examples that do not. Mathematicians, by contrast prove the validity of their propositions through justification and reasoning,” writes Boaler.2 “Math people” that go on to be mathematicians are not the only people who need to engage in justification and reasoning on a daily basis. These skills allow successful people in today’s workforce to discuss and reason about possible solutions, to make mistakes and have the ability trace their work in order to correct those mistakes. Employers need people who can reason about approaches by estimating and verifying results, and connect with other people’s thought processes.2

While the Common Core still has many flaws, it is a huge and necessary step towards the equality of mathematical education in America. The Common Core promotes creativity and thought rather than focusing on mundane procedure and how fast a student can complete that procedure. The Common Core brings focus to the needs of mathematicians today. The United States needs; people who are confident with numbers; can justify, reason and communicate using mathematical models and predictions; and most importantly approach an unknown problem and take logical steps to solve it. Boaler’s conclusion was that, “We need a broad and diverse range of people who are powerful mathematical thinkers and who have not been held back by stereotypical thinking and teaching. Common Core mathematics, imperfect though it may be, can help us reach those goals.”2

Image: Bill Ferriter, based on Where I Teach by Todd Ehlers.

Image: Bill Ferriter, based on Where I Teach by Todd Ehlers.

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