Math education: What’s the problem?

From staff and wire reports
August 22nd, 2012

A new report claims that taking algebra too early is detrimental to students’ math education.

A new report from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) tackles the U.S. algebra and mathematics dilemma and is the latest to suggest that not all students should be pushed to take algebra in the eighth grade.

Solving America’s mathematics education problem,” by Duke professor Jacob L. Vigdor, examines cultural shifts that have resulted in new waves of interest in students’ mathematics performance.

Despite a renewed focus on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) skills, high school students continue to perform poorly on math tests. That trend continues into college, where many new college students enroll in remedial math courses. The report notes that “the proportion of new college graduates who majored in math-intensive subjects has declined by nearly half over the past 60 years.”

The U.S. is in danger of slowed or lost progress if these trends continue, the report warns.

See also:

New math software targets ‘perceptual learning’

Projects test real-world use of math as learning tool

Column: Why our kids hate math

Moving students through algebra and other higher-level math courses can hurt their knowledge and performance if they enter the classes too soon. For example, in North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, students who took algebra earlier than their peers scored 13 percentile points lower on a standardized test than students who took algebra on a regular schedule.

Some districts have tried to close the math achievement gap by excluding more challenging math topics. But this “dumbing down” hurts students who might want to pursue math majors in college and math-related careers, because they leave high school without skills that other students–their competition in college and the workforce–possess. Over the past 30 years, average SAT math scores have increased 20 points, but there has been a 25 percent drop in the number of college students majoring in math-centered subjects, according to recent research noted in the report.

“The root of America’s math problem is the conflation of two goals: improving the absolute performance of American students and closing gaps between high and low performers,” Vigdor notes. “Following the failure of a significant initiative to accomplish both goals simultaneously—the ‘new math’ movement of the mid-twentieth century—successive reforms have focused attention on bringing lower-performing students up to standards. In the process, the standards have been lowered, and the advancement of higher-performing students has been allowed to languish. Designers of the nation’s mathematics curriculum, in short, have fallen into an ‘achievement-gap trap,’ raising the relative performance of average students in part by permitting the absolute performance of the best students to decline.”

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One Response to “Math education: What’s the problem?”

August 28, 2012

The report from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) begs an interesting discussion concerning conceptual learning and young children. A comprehensive background in basic mathematics is essential for students to excel at algebra, as algebra is comprised of many more abilities than arithmetic. Algebra requires conceptual thinking and the application of rules in a sequential process. Before students even begin to learn basic mathematics, they must first develop core competencies that will eventually allow them to understand the nature of the questions that advanced math problems ask.

Research by Susan Landry of The University of Texas System’s Health and Science Center and James Baker III of Rice University details that children begin to fall behind in these skills beginning in the Pre-K years. The shortfalls are highly likely to persist through a child’s entire school career (Effective Early Childhood Programs). If children encounter extensive exposure to patterning, mathematical situations and structures, models of quantitative relationships, and qualitative and quantitative changes during their early childhood, they will later make successful transitions into higher levels of math.

Students feel overwhelmed by advanced math classes like algebra when they have not developed these core competencies. The result is a discouraged outlook on future mathematical endeavors. As students develop aversions to math during their early years, rather than developing the competencies during Pre-K that allow them to excel, fewer students pursue majors related to mathematics. The AEI is correct in their assertion that offering classes like algebra to students before they are equipped to tackle the problems will be detrimental to the student’s confidence in their mathematical abilities; however, the root of the issue is based in helping more children develop core competencies at an early age and not in whether or not 8th graders begin algebra too soon.

Thankfully, educators nationwide are increasingly aware of how critical this time period is to developing conceptual learning skills. Schools are integrating educational technology solutions in early learning classrooms in an effort to bridge learning gaps among students. Early assessment and progress monitoring can identify the areas in which a child may need extra attention.

By Dr. Dale McManis, Research Director, Hatch