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Those of us who follow education improvement efforts in America have heard all about the “science of literacy” and the desperate need for teachers trained in phonics instead of “whole language.”
Yet we hear little about the most effective ways to teach math.
Maybe that’s because most of us are really bad at it.
Here’s a data point: Only one-third of American adults are comfortable with 4th grade math concepts, like fractions and percentages, as well as two-step problems with whole numbers. Our children pay the price in social mobility, basic decision-making, and college/career prospects.
Laura Overdeck, a long-time New Jersey resident, has made it her mission to raise national awareness about our children’s poor math skills while offering research-based methods to raise proficiency levels. Her crusade took on new meaning during the pandemic and its attendant learning losses, but she’s been elevating these issues for years, especially through her non-profit called Bedtime Math. Now she’s added a new tool for parents: Be Part of the Equation.
The key to raising math achievement among students is involved parents who value math skills as much as reading skills–and are willing to speak out to friends, teachers, school boards, and policy-makers.
Overdeck, a fierce education advocate, believes math is an essential life skill. just as important as reading. During a recent conversation, she noted that adults regularly make mathematical errors over, say, whether to buy warranties on appliances (they’re almost all a rip-off, she says) or whether that Netflix subscription is a good deal. If we were able to perform simple percentages in our heads (like, what percentage of your appliances have broken down during the length of said warranty?) we’d be better off. But us grown-ups (parents, voters, and taxpayers) have been failed by our math education and now the legacy of this ignorance will be passed on to our children–unless we take action.
One way to quantify American numeracy is to look at an international assessment in math, reading, and science called PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) given to representative samples of 15-year-olds in 79 countries. On the most recent test in 2018, the U.S. ranked 36th. (We do better in reading and science.) And those rankings have remained stable since the first PISA given in 1967. “What surprises me is how stable U.S. performance is,” said Tom Loveless, an education expert who was formerly at the Brookings Institution. “The scores have always been mediocre.”
One of the directors of the agency that administers PISA, Andreas Schleicher, explains the shallow level of skills among American students: “Students are often good at answering the first layer of a problem in the United States, but as soon as students have to go deeper and answer the more complex parts of a problem, they have difficulties,” he said.
The pandemic school closures made everything worse. On the latest NAEP assessments (considered the “gold standard” and “the nation’s report card,”) only 33% of 8th graders and 24% of 12th graders are proficient in math. Overall, math scores dropped 7 points from 2020-2022.
Overdeck wants to change that.
I asked her what she regarded as the primary reasons America does so poorly in math.
She started with this: teachers are overwhelmed by the enormous loads they’re expected to bear; concurrently, our standards for teacher preparation schools are too low. (Overdeck believes if teacher colleges were more selective, new teachers would rebel against those low math standards.) Also, school districts are less than transparent about the curricula, textbooks, and reference material they use and that’s important: elementary school textbooks for math are completely dominated by big publishers like Pearson and Houghton Mifflin, she says, where much of the material is “irrelevant to students’ lives.”
Anyway, if a teacher isn’t comfortable with his math proficiency (like two-thirds of Americans), how is he going to effectively instruct students in that subject, especially if he is fearful of diverging from that dry, irrelevant textbook?
In fact, researchers at Bedtime Math combed through all NJ curricula and found that one-third of districts were using Pearson, which doesn’t meet state standards and produces what Overdeck calls “fake proficiency.”
Then there’s the enormous proficiency gaps as soon as children start kindergarten: some kids “are flying,” says Overdeck, while “others are so far behind they know numbers like song lyrics” with no understanding of skills as basic as counting.
That’s why Overdeck started Be Part of the Equation: to reverse what she calls a “nationwide slide” in math proficiency. Doing so, she says, “will take a collective effort from parents, educators, school boards and voters to pressure the system and foster a cultural mind shift. The conversation around skills gaps often focuses on literacy, with numeracy a distant second. We need to insist that math is just as important as reading, and make it an equal priority in our kids’ education.”
The site offers many resources for parents to advocate for their children’s math instruction. There are four sections: “Talk to Your Kid,” “Talk to Your Teacher,” “Talk to Your School,” and “Talk to Your Policy Makers.” For instance, “Talk to Your Kid” offers parents 10-second math check-ups that are fun and informative. For a first-grader you ask, “what does the 1 in 14 mean?” For a middle-schooler, you say, “let’s make some trail mix!” and work on proportions. In “Be Victorious Over Homework,” the platform offers advice and resources to elevate parents’ comfort levels with math challenges.
In “Talk to Your School,” the site steers you to EdReports, which compiles teacher reviews of textbooks and suggests a series of questions that parents should use to learn about the quality and success rate of your local school district’s math curricula. (Sample question: Did you ever consider any of the highly rated, research-backed curricula like Eureka Math or the online program Zearn? Why or why not?)
Here’s an example. Be Part of the Equation offers a map to solve a common source of confusion: your kid gets a high grade on their report card but standardized test results (state assessments or internal district tests like MAP and iReady) indicate much lower proficiency. What to do? Ask your child’s teacher these questions:
- When did our school administer the standardized state test(s)?
- When will I get the results?
- Is the test digital? (If it is, push to see results as soon as possible! In this age, results should be available within weeks.)
- How are you using the diagnostic data to help close gaps for my child? Do you feel like the school values these data?
“Math is a journey to the right answer,” says Overdeck, “but you can get there by many different routes. It’s not necessary to be a math whiz to be a math parent.”