Math Education: Fixing a Broken System

Can you summarize the problems with math education?

Too much skill building for too long without using the skills in real life. Imagine coaching kids in baseball for 12 years without ever playing a game. Or trying to learn Spanish without ever having a conversation. . . for 12 years! It’s not sustainable.

We build students’ skills in whole numbers through second grade, fractions and decimals through sixth, ratios and rates through eighth;, then comes algebra, geometry, and calculus. It’s too much skill building.

I’ll make another analogy. You know lots of adults with a piano in the house that they never use. The people you know who play piano are likely playing in a rock band, or a jazz band, or at parties. They are using the skill. They probably cannot play Rachmaninoff. But they play, and you may even envy them.

We tell kids they are “mathematicians” only after they have played Rachmaninoff. Students are mathematicians if they can divide fractions. Trust me! They are mathematicians if they can calculate a loan rate, put together a P&L for a small business, or reasonably estimate the gasoline budget for a school district bus system. In fact, middle school math is where the rubber hits the road.

Why are you so adamant about middle school math proficiency?

90% of adults work in careers and have household responsibilities that require middle school math, and no math beyond that level. So, our primary educational math goal should be mastery at that level.

We should loudly applaud those who master proportional reasoning, statistical analysis, graphing and functions, and all of the topics that define middle school math. And we should saturate at this level.

How does this affect your thinking about high school math?

Most students enter high school with a poor attitude about math. They think they are weak in math and they know that their parents do not understand the math they are being taught. A young person is essentially going to school to be like their parents, to grow into adulthood. So, if the math does not pertain to their folks, why bother with it?

If we can master middle school math, as a nation, with meaning, then we will have millions of confident mathematicians who fundamentally see the relevance. They will become adults who value math education. Then, a far greater number of students will be motivated to study algebra, geometry, and calculus. Our nation will be in better shape.

How about connecting math to the real world?

Have the sixth graders run the school cafeteria business. Have the seventh graders responsible for sports data across all leagues in the town, and printed in the local paper. Have the eighth graders working in the school business office and maintenance department. Use the skills. Master them.

Many, many children apply their reading joyfully. And they are never pressured to read James Joyce. Change the math game. Get 80% of our nation’s youth to master and apply middle school math. Then, you’ll have a huge pool of confident students ready to make good use of the skills taught in algebra and beyond.