Literate adults who'd be embarrassed to admit a lack of knowledge of politics or to confess they haven't read a best-seller feel no shame over their ignorance of mathematics. It's a problem with early beginnings.
Too many students go through school without properly grasping math. Only one of five students getting diplomas from New York City high schools last year mastered math sufficiently to be deemed ready for college.
Among American 15-year-olds, only 10 percent scored in the two highest categories in the Program for International Student Assessment. The average score of the teens trailed 34 other countries. And only 6 percent of fourth-graders across the country reached the advanced proficiency level in math on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress.
The statistics say it all: The United States does not give students a solid foundation in math. Yet, the school reform movement has little to say about these shortcomings.
Students often emerge from the lower grades without the grounding and attitudes to cope with math in secondary school and college. Too many are anxious when confronted with math problems and lack the basic tools to prosper in algebra, geometry and calculus.
And the negative attitudes that accumulate in lower grades can affect students for the rest of their education. Sian L. Bullock, the author of "Choke," found that simply suggesting to college students that they must take a math test triggered stressful responses.
To start children on the right track, elementary schools need new approaches:
Who teaches math -- typical elementary schoolteachers have minimal preparation in math and tend to lack confidence in their knowledge of the subject. They may bequeath their anxiety to students. This situation may change when novice teachers are educated differently.
But teacher turnover takes a long time and those already in classrooms must undergo a great deal of professional development. Why not use math specialists? Art, music and gym are already taught by specialists. An alternative would be to team pairs of teachers, giving one responsibility for math and, say, science, while the other handles language arts and social studies.
How they teach it -- The emphasis, from the outset, should be on problem solving. The correct answer shouldn't matter as much as how students arrive at it. Youngsters ought to learn that many problems have more than one solution.
Those teaching math in elementary schools must find a balance between the shortcuts available through technology and the need to imbue students with concepts that foster understanding and prepare them to tackle higher order mathematical thinking -- which not only improves achievement but also helps them navigate everyday issues.
What they teach -- Singapore Math, a program used in some American schools, illustrates the possibilities of dealing with fewer topics and learning them well instead of confronting young students with a wide, more shallow curriculum. There is no single best curriculum for elementary math, but whichever one schools use should convey the joy and satisfaction of problem solving and strategies to seek solutions. The best approach involves learning and discussing a body of core concepts, not racing through mind-numbing exercises on worksheets.
Shoring up the underpinnings of elementary math will mean difficult work by teachers to bolster their knowledge of both content and pedagogy, and providing students with more meaningful homework. It also requires more from parents, who need to hold higher expectations, reinforce the schools, and urge children to put forth greater effort in math. Students who get support at home perform better than those who do not.
Gene I. Maeroff is a senior fellow at Teachers College, Columbia University and author of "School Boards in America: A Flawed Exercise in Democracy who contributed to this post.
Originally posted in Newsday.com on September 9, 2011