As parents, we hold few skills more dearly than literacy. After all, reading opens the door to brand-new worlds, innovative ideas and critical thinking. Literacy holds the key to learning. But what about math skills?
Who doesn’t revel in their child’s first awareness of the ABCs? What proud parents don’t crow a bit if their son or daughter turns out to be an early reader?
Funny. We never hear much about early adders. Or early subtractors, or even that occasional hyper-precocious kid who seems to intuitively recognize the relationship between integers. In fact, many of us, no math geniuses ourselves, laugh off our children’s computation struggles with a “Guess she’s just like me” comment that translates into “It’s OK if you don’t do well in math.”
Turns out it’s not OK. A study published this month by the U.S. Department of Education (“The Final Report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel”) concludes that as a nation, our math skills are declining. “There are consequences to a weakening of American independence and leadership in mathematics, the natural sciences and engineering,” the study reports. “We risk our ability to adapt to change. We risk technological surprise to our economic viability — and to the foundations of our country’s security.”
The picture’s even gloomier globally. Our kids pretty much pale in comparison to math students around the world. Here’s what the latest National Report Card shows (the data was collected by the National Assessment of Educational Progress): 32 percent of students in the United States are at or above proficiency level in eighth-grade math, and just 23 percent of U.S. students show math competency at grade 12.
What does all this news, well, add up to? It seems that in this country, we don’t treat mathematics with much respect. And our children feel the fallout. “Everyone is comfortable with reading,” says Becca Lewis, a former elementary school teacher in the Tacoma School District. “Parents have this expectation that all kids learn to read. But math is less visible. It’s harder to put in kids’ hands; you don’t have it sitting around your house, like books.”
The reality is, math matters. “It can be a gatekeeper for a lot of kids,” says Lewis, who’s now a curriculum designer at DreamBox Learning, a Bellevue company that’s developed a web-based math-learning tool geared toward elementary kids. “If kids don’t take enough math or score well on tests, countless education and career opportunities will be unavailable to them.”
If your kids seem blasé about the education and job opportunities they risk missing, maybe they’ll respond to real-life requirements: Mundane tasks such as marketing, dining out, and figuring out mileage and budgets on trips all take numbers know-how.
“You don’t need to be math literate only if you want to become an astronaut,” says Sarah Daniels, a former Stanford math major who’s now marketing vice president for DreamBox. “You can’t buy a house, balance your checkbook or decide whether it’s better to buy a product at Costco or QFC without math. But in our math-starved society, we’ve forgotten that.”
Teachers try their best to get students up to speed in math. But many teachers these days are undertrained and underfunded. “Teachers frequently lack things they need, like paper or ink, or hands-on materials kids can use to model their thinking,” says Lewis. And teacher-prep programs often go light on the math content. Lewis, who learned to teach K-8 math in a program that offered a semester-long weekly math/science course, supplemented her own training with additional instruction.
It doesn’t help that no one seems to agree on teaching methods. This, of course, is nothing new. Ever since “arithmetic” became “math” with the introduction of New Math in the post-Sputnik '60s, coaching kids to multiply, divide and compute algebraic equations has generated controversy. For example: Is your child’s math program inquiry-based or does it focus on the basics? Ask around; the impassioned thinking and divergent views on this topic may surprise you.
“There has been a dumbing-down of content, standards and expectations in schools,” says Bob Brandt, a founding member of Where’s The Math, an advocacy group that works to restore rigor to math education.
Where’s The Math organizers call current math trends “fuzzy” and support a program that emphasizes fundamental computational skills. “If parents are technically trained, they look at their child’s math curriculum and think, ‘How will my child have the potential to do the kind of work I’m doing?’” says Brandt.
Bringing math home
While the math-ed hot shots battle it out, where does that leave parents and kids? With any luck, at home — engaging in number-packed games and activities.
No one’s asking you to solve logic problems (second-graders can do them, but they make grown-ups dizzy) or do a fact triangle (don’t ask). Simply make counting, patterns and numbers part of your child’s routine.
Driving someplace? Notice which exit number is coming up — and show the kids how the numbers appear sequentially. If your child’s a toddler, sing counting songs along the way, such as “One, Two, Buckle My Shoe.”
Read counting books to your youngsters, such as Counting Crocodiles by Judy Sierra and Will Hillenbrand, Counting on Frank by Rod Clement or My Little Counting Book by Roger Priddy. Then create your own counting book with your preschooler or kindergartener. Ask your child to draw four balls to illustrate the number four, and so on.
As kids get older, play board games with them that require math skills and score keeping, such as Yahtzee, checkers and Chutes and Ladders.
“Add math to your child’s daily life in small ways — like a vitamin,” says Lewis. “That will help them think about math more positively.”
Linda Morgan, ParentMap associate editor and education writer, is a former writing instructor. She is the author of Beyond Smart: Boosting Your Child's Social, Emotional and Academic Potential.
Encouraging kids’ math skills
10 suggestions from DreamBox Learning:
1. Play number games during everyday activities, such as counting the number of steps, the number of items going into the laundry or the number of trucks you see while driving.
2. Read the calendar and determine the number of days until an upcoming event.
With older children, count by sevens.
3. Plan a shopping list and figure out how to shop for items that fit your budget.
4. With your young child, count the number of items you bought at the store.
5. Read a recipe and have your child measure the amounts for the ingredients.
6. Have your child practice counting the change needed to pay for an item.
7. At the grocery store, ask your child to find items that are triangles, circles, rectangles and other shapes.
8. Ask your child to recognize or stack the groceries you bought by container shape.
9. Take measurements for a project around the house.
10. Compare and organize tools, dishes or other objects based on size, color or weight.