So, We Americans Suck at Teaching Math…

…and Common Core is going to make it worse.

Math Mark

My daughter started 5th grade this year, and I’ve been nervous about her starting this grade because that’s when school started not working out for me.  Seriously, my 5th grade year was handled so poorly by my teachers that it destroyed my attitude towards learning up through high school.  The worst teacher that year was my math teacher, and I’ll get to her in a moment, but the fact was that she didn’t know how to teach math.  Now that my daughter has been in school for a month, coming home with “Common Core” stamped assignments, it has become clear to me that our math curriculum is worse today than it was 22 years ago, when I had to suffer through it! I have sought to keep her spirit alive despite whatever speed-bumps get in her way, but these new Common Core stamped lessons sure make it hard.

pointsMy experience with math in school was poorly managed from the beginning, but basically I felt like a ping-pong ball bouncing back and forth between good teachers and bad teachers every other year, starting in the 3rd grade.  I remember learning multiplication and division and not getting anywhere, and it not making sense.  Then one day I had a sleepover at a friend’s house and their family had a computer with a math game on it (we didn’t have a PC at home yet, so I loved playing with my friends’ computers).  I have no idea who made this software, but it had challenges based on skill level, and mini-lessons between levels.  During that one night, I did lessons that caught me up with my class and actually took me several levels beyond, and it all made sense.  But then a memory that sticks in my mind was doing a long division assignment, and doing it the way the computer taught me instead of the class, and I had points taken way for not showing my work properly.

Fourth grade has no major math memories that stick in my mind, but I wasn’t like a genius or anything.  The biggest problem that I think was getting me in trouble in 4th grade was keeping up with my homework.  Between my older brother and me, this was the first year that my parent’s had two kids bringing home a substantial amount of homework daily.  I’ll freely admit that in my 10 year-old brain I didn’t understand the value of homework, because 95% of the time it was busywork that taught me nothing.  I could sit in my class all week, listening to my teacher, and doing the in-class assignments, and ace all my quizzes and tests, so homework felt superfluous and I treated it as such.  During parent-teacher conferences my teacher and parents would try to impress on my how much better my grades would be if I just turned in my homework, and come up with strategies to stay on top of me, but they rarely lasted more than a week or two.

The consequence of my attitude towards homework in 4th grade led to terrible ramifications in the 5th grade.  Based on my 4th grade math grades (as opposed to my ability), I was assigned to a remedial math group in 5th.  Oh my, oh my was I bored out of my mind.  On top of that my math teacher had a terrible attitude.  Her way to assess if we were progressing was timed tests, and she had little cards that we would move around the wall as we passed from the 1 times-table up through the 12 times-table.  We started class with a 1-minute quiz every day.  Unfortunately, the way my brain works when it comes to math is that I actually do the problem in my head every time I see it.  So instead of just memorizing, for example, 7, 14, 21, 28, 35, 42, 49, 56, 63, 70, 77, 84, for the 7 times-table, I would sit there and work each problem out in my head.  So even though I was passing all other assignments and tests, the mere fact I wasn’t progressing through this arbitrary and ungraded challenge of hers told her everything that she needed to know about my math ability.  And this apparently meant, in her perspective, I wasn’t worth any extra effort on her part to help me level-up.

After months on complaining to my parents and getting nowhere, everything finally came to a head a couple months before summer when all 5th grade students were to be given an assessment test for overall math ability and algebra readiness.  Unfortunately, I had a dental appointment scheduled for that morning that went long, and I arrived with only 10 minutes to complete a 45 minute test.  My dad assured me, as he dropped me off that my teacher would give me the full 45 minutes, after all, recess was right after my math class, so of course she would use recess to give me the same amount of time as my peers.  Well, my dad was wrong.  I got into my classroom, took the test for 8 minutes, then the recess bell rang.  I stayed in my seat as my dad had instructed me and kept working as everyone else put the test on our teacher’s desk and filed out of the room.  My teacher then told me that my time was up, and I said, “but I got here late, don’t I get to finish?”  She walked over, picked up my test out from under my pencil, and said, “don’t worry about it. It doesn’t even get graded.”  I followed her instructions and went out to recess.

When I got home that night my parents asked me about the test, and I told them I wasn’t allowed to finish.  My dad was convinced that I had just blew off the test so I could go to recess, or that there had been a misunderstanding between me and the teacher (I was the kid who always managed to weasel out of his homework, his suspicions were justified).  So the next morning he took me to school to talk to my teacher.  As I walked down to my locker, my dad went to my math teacher’s room.  I was talking to a friend when every kid in 5th grade was suddenly aware of a disturbance in the hallway.  I back up the corridor to see my dad and my math teacher yelling at each other in the middle of the hallway, surrounded by half my grade staring at them with dropped jaws.  Other teachers quickly rushed to get these two adults out of sight, while one teacher (whom I had a good relationship with) took me to a classroom that was empty for first period, and told me to hold tight and not go to class yet while she figured out what was going on.  She eventually came back and told me that I could now go about my day.  Yeah, right!!!  Everywhere I went every kid kept on telling me how awesome my dad was, or asking if I was in trouble.  All the teachers seemed to be treating me with kid-gloves, worried that if they weren’t super nice to me, my dad would barge in and yell at them next.

Finally, I reached my math period and made my way to my math class.  One step inside the door, my teacher looked at me for half a second, and then looking away from me as though she were addressing the class instead of me, and said, “Kyle, you’re not in trouble, but you have to go to the principal’s office.”

I got there and the assistant principal took it from there.  He apologized that I had not been given an equal opportunity as my peers and took me to the empty lunch room to take the test.  I was told I had 45 minutes.  I finished in 30.  I aced it.  Later that week, they thought it was a fluke and made me take a slightly different test.  I aced that one too.  Now, I’m not a math genius, but these were ability tests, and had instructions on how to solve all the problems at the top of the page.  Basically, it was to see how well we could solve problems that we had never been exposed to before with minimal instruction.  They were a piece of cake for the way I learn math.

Now, to rewind a bit and explain what triggered that loud, disruptive argument between my dad and my math teacher.  My dad asked her if I could retake the test with the appropriate time allowed, and my teacher’s response was this: “sure, but I don’t know why you are worried about this.  He’s not graded on it, and you and I both know that Kyle’s not going to pass.”  Needless to say, my dad did not agree with her.  Apparently the argument got pretty ugly from there.  Fortunately, once things had settled down and my dad and teacher explained the argument to the principal, the teacher was reprimanded.

I wish I could say that this was a “happily ever after” story, but it’s not.  While I did jump from the remedial math class in 5th grade to the top math class in 6th. I hit another speed-bump in 7th grade when I was put in a math class that was half 7th and half 8th graders (seriously what school is THAT dumb?).  The 8th graders weren’t about to be shown up in ability by a bunch of “kids” so we were bullied, and since at that age I had a pretty bad external-locus of control, I provided the most entertaining results for their bullying efforts.  I eventually spent that grade sitting in the back of the classroom focusing mainly on not drawing attention to myself.  After not learning anything that year, the school made me repeat the class in 8th grade.  In 9th grade, the same thing that had happened in 7th grade happened again, only this time it was the slacker seniors who were taking this class for the 2nd or 3rd time in hopes of graduating that I got saddled with.  Fortunately, by then 2 years of therapy had trained me how to not present myself as a target, and I had better emotional regulation, so bullying wasn’t a problem, but the teacher had to spend so much time disciplining the seniors that she didn’t teach much of anything.  After that horrific year, I was so burned out on math that I just completed the minimum requirements for college admission, and was lucky enough to get the minimum ACT math score that I didn’t have to take Core Math in College.

It is a rather sad story.  I ruled out a lot of majors and careers because they required above the minimum Core Math requirement, and by that point in my life I genuinely believed that I was bad at math.  No one could have convinced me otherwise while I was an undergrad, I figured my experience learning math could have not have been that problematic unless something in me was incapable of learning math.  It wasn’t until my late 20’s when I realized how I had hobbled myself career wise by avoiding math, that I finally went back to school.  One of the first classes I took as I prepared for graduate school was a math class through the local community college.  The teacher was fantastic.  He was an engineer from Texas Instruments who taught adjunct for the fun of it and LOVED math, and wanted us to love it too.  I learned so much in that class, but the biggest thing I learned was that I was in fact capable of learning and understanding complex math.  Better late then never, but still a pity I had to wait until I was 28 to learn that.

Having now worked as an university academic advisor for several years, I have found with incoming freshman that my experience is far from unique.  Well, at least everything except for the part of the story where my dad yelled at the teacher.  That part of the story is FAR TOO UNIQUE!!!  We need more parents willing to do that!  We need more dad’s willing to risk arrest to put school officials in their place.  My local school officials and teachers are MY EMPLOYEES, and they must me responsive and accountable to ME.  Common Core robs me of that right, and gives crappy teachers cover when we challenge their incompetence.

Common Core lowers the math standard, and couldn’t even win the support of the one math professor who served on the committee.  The curriculum that has been built around common core has no validated studies that support it as a teaching technique, thus meaning that this is just an experiment.  We don’t need to experiment!  We have validated studies that show curriculum in other countries work.  Let’s emulate their success!

My life experience has taught me to be extremely distrustful of the K-12 educational-industrial complex.  No offence to all you good teachers out there, but too many of your peers are not worthy of respect, and until the system has changed to weed them out, I’m gonna paint with a broad brush.

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2 thoughts on “So, We Americans Suck at Teaching Math…

  1. Karen says:

    I can’t get past the fact that you used a computer to learn math in THIRD GRADE. Anyway, great post. Your story IS all too common. and more common today than ever. One of Lucy’s math teachers said in answer to a question about “Connected Math” (which is the devil’s curriculum) “You know how you’ve forgotten all the math you learned in school? We’re going to tell stories so the kids won’t forget.” To which my husband responded, “I haven’t forgotten.” That was the beginning of allowing incorrect answers if they could explain HOW they got them. 21st Century Education. No thank you.

    • Thanks Karen. Yeah, I was in third grade in the 1980’s so it was rare to have access to such a thing. It’s a pity I’ve never found a good software program online to help my kids out.

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