The US knows math is important. In fact, according to PayScale, all the top-paying bachelor degrees require math. Math is also key to innovation and economic growth - and that’s important to everyone.
Math performance important starting in Kindergarten
Researchers from UC Irvine analyzed a collection of studies that had assessed the math abilities of almost 20,000 kindergarten students. The studies also analyzed the students’ literacy skills and their ability to stay on task. What the analysis shows, is that early math skills are the best indicator of later success - even better than literacy, and social-emotional skills.
A second study, supported by the National Institute of Health, showed that children who failed to acquire a basic math skill in first grade scored far behind their peers by seventh grade on a test of the mathematical abilities needed to function in adult life.
US students struggling
Unfortunately, if standardized testing is anything to go by, US students are struggling with math.
On the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), US students ranked 27th out of the 34 OECD countries. That’s on par with students from Hungary, Italy, Lithuania, Norway, Portugal, the Russian Federation, the Slovak Republic, Spain, and Sweden.
Students in the United States are particularly weak at performing mathematics tasks with higher cognitive demands.
That weakness is what drove the US to adopt the Common Core standards - an approach designed to help students learn to think math, not just do math. And it’s why we give diagnostic assessments at the beginning of the school year. And why we’ve increased standardized testing beginning in Grade 3.
Early grades vital building blocks to future math success
With our earliest learners, those assessments have to be done one-on-one. Conducting these assessments eats into teachers’ instructional time. Many students find these assessments stressful, which makes the results less reliable - but we don’t have to tell teachers that.
The school system spends an enormous amount of time and money on remediation - on helping students when those standardized tests tell us they’re struggling.
Because of the cumulative nature of learning math - ideas build on what was taught before - remediation is both time consuming and expensive.
That’s what makes the first few years of math instruction so critically important. Ideally, we’d identify gaps right away - and we’d begin in Kindergarten. And we’d do it without increasing formal testing.
Attitude is everything
So why are we struggling with math? Imagine a society where it was perfectly acceptable to say, “I can’t read or write.” You can’t. You just can’t.
But I bet you’ve heard parents say “I’m not good at math” as if it were an acceptable end to the conversation. And I bet you’ve heard teachers - even teachers who teach math in the earliest grades - say it.
And you’ve heard it from your students too.
How pervasive is it? Nearly one-third of American adults would rather clean the bathroom than solve a math problem. More than half of middle school students would rather eat broccoli.
We shouldn’t be shocked by those early teachers opinions. In the earliest grades, it’s not like math teachers are specialists. They teach EVERYTHING. Often teachers are struggling with their own math anxiety, and they’re equipped with little in the way of post-secondary education in teaching math specifically.
What’s the big deal?
Stress is a killer when it comes to learning math, and it’s not just found in kids who perform poorly. Students who do well also suffer from math anxiety, and it negatively affects their performance. Just as important, math anxiety negatively affects performance in other subjects.
So, when does math anxiety start? According to an influential study out of the University of Chicago, there’s evidence of math anxiety as early as Grade 1.
But where does math anxiety come from? Well, current thinking is that students pick up on anxiety exhibited by their parents and teachers. When parents struggle to help their children do math homework and say things like “I can’t do this” or “this is too hard,” it feeds that anxiety.
Struggling does not mean someone can’t do math. In fact, it’s an essential part of learning math. People who are good at math embrace the struggle, while people who give up let themselves be “bad” at math.
So what’s the solution?
Give teachers the support they need. Give them the information they need to see in real-time where students are doing well and where they’re struggling. Make that information easy to understand and easy to act on.
Give students tools that make math fun and engaging - as far away from drill and kill as we can possibly get. Make those tools adaptive and scaffolded so that students get feedback that’s tailored to their specific needs. Make it safe to fail, because learning to think mathematically is about learning from mistakes - not being quick to recall math facts. But that’s a whole other post. If you're looking for some fun and engaging in-class activities to get you started, here are five ways to make math fun for early learners.
How can we produce a generation that loves math? That gets math?
Zorbit's Math Adventure is a fun and engaging online math game, currently available for kindergarten and grade 1 teachers and students. This adaptive, game-based learning program will improve your student's experiences with math, increase their level of understanding and performance, and will allow you to view your entire class's game performance from a high-level overview.