Newly released test scores in California revealed that only 32 percent of students in Fresno County met or exceeded math standards. This is only a 2 percent increase compared to last year. While this might sound discouraging, it should prompt all of us as stakeholders in education to take notice. It’s easy to step on the bandwagon and blame the results on factors like the Common Core State Standards, but truth be told, the new assessments hold students to a reasonable standard of application and understanding not just memorization. These tests are telling us what we already know – math education needs a revolution.
As a math educator for over 20 years, I’ve seen the pendulum swing a few times and the one thing that has always been constant is students’ loathing for “school” mathematics. I say “school” mathematics because it doesn’t mirror what real mathematics is at all. There’s a reason why many cringe when they hear the word “math.” For too many it brings about fearful memories, mostly related to experiences in the classroom. School mathematics has become more about performance and less about problem solving. Problem solving is messy. It can be slow, there are lots of mistakes, and it’s usually done collaboratively. In contrast, “school” mathematics has been centered around questions like – “Is my answer right or wrong?” “Can I do my math facts in 3 minutes?” “Do I have all the formulas memorized?”
This is one reason why I am honored to be a part of the Early Math team at the AIMS Center. Children form their perception of mathematics at a very early age and this is impacted by the experiences they have around mathematics. However, I realize that the influence of home, community, and culture outside of school are at least equally powerful. For example, mothers have a very unique role in the eyes of children and their words and actions carry great weight. Math games shouldn’t just happen at school, the joy of mathematics needs to become part of our lives. We don’t need to educate students to be calculators, we already have those. We need problem solvers, students who know how to apply math in the appropriate circumstances, students who are innovative, and students who can collaborate with others effectively. We should invite our children to value mistakes because that is how we know we are learning. And we should encourage our children to notice the mathematics all around them and never ever let them know our dislike or fears around math. The assessment data isn’t saying that the bar has been set unreasonably high, it’s just that we have been standing on the wrong ground for way too long. It’s time to step up to the plate and embrace the challenge. We cannot place the full burden on teachers, it begins with community involvement and a cultural shift. Mathematics is a powerful indicator of future academic success. Let’s change the math story for our children so that nothing holds them back from their dreams.