Giving young students a solid start in math skills requires new thinking
- During the past school year, only 40% of 4th graders nationwide scored proficient in math, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. For Hispanic students, it was 26% percent and 19 % for African-American students.
But one Illinois district has come up with effective tactics for raising math proficiency levels in the early grades, according to KQED. The first ties into the Common Core standards that students discuss problem-solving strategies rather than just popping out the right answer. The district’s number talks have students to discuss and critique math solutions.
Another approach is breaking students into teams to devise pictograph queries, presenting numerical data, such as statistics, using images. That practice is making students both better communicators and mathematicians, a combination that can prepare them for college and higher-paying jobs in the future. A series of Instructional rounds also brought out that savvy use of classroom wall space can promote better mathematical thinking and if teachers stepped back, students would work out their own solutions more frequently.
Early emphasis on math, in preschool and the primary grades is crucial. But several roadblocks persist, especially for schools with higher populations of English language learners. When teachers take a one-size-fits-all approach, that makes it hard for the students learning English to grasp what’s being taught.
What was long seen as the crux of the problem — lack of universal, quality preschool — is no longer seen as the only issue. Last year, 43 states, Washington, D.C. and Guam spent close to $8 billion on publicly funded preschool. Yet a recent National Institute of Health research paper showed that even when greater numbers of students are showing up to kindergarten well-prepared by a high-quality preschool, those gains fade in as soon as a year. It’s failure of the one-size-fits-all approach that many teachers must take that’s partly at fault. Teachers tend to focus on those students who don’t know their numbers and other basic skills, because they can’t move forward until they’re up to speed. But in the meantime, those who came in armed with more advanced math knowledge aren’t being challenged to build on those.
When teachers have “math anxiety,” that lack of confidence in their own mathematical ability can also trickle down to students. It happens more often among teachers than one might think. Even just a well-meaning, “Don’t worry; math’s not my thing, either” can send the wrong message: that people are either naturally good at math, or they’re not. The solution may not be what seems most obvious: having teachers bone up on their math skills. What may be more effective is instruction on how to teach math to children. Also, digital tools can serve as a “back-up” for teachers as well.
Another hurdle is that parents haven’t embraced at-home math practice to anywhere near the same extent as they have reading with their children. The reasons are less than clear. It may be that counting and problem-solving sessions just don’t have the warm and fuzzy patina of quality time that bedtime stories do. Or perhaps parents have a degree of math anxiety themselves. But math can be easily woven into everyday activities and school leaders can give families tips and resources on how to do this.
- National Institutes of Health Persistence and Fadeout in the Impact of Child and Adolescent Interventions
- KQED News How to boost math skills in the early grades