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Math education: a difficult problem in search of a solution

September 21, 2018

Audrey Davis and other fifth-grade students review math March 7 at Ona Elementary School. Ona was one of four elementaries in Cabell County to meet state math standards last year. The others were Martha, Nichols and Salt Rock.

Some problems, it seems, will always be with us. Too many teenagers will find themselves pregnant, too many will take up smoking, and too many will have trouble with math.

Last week the state released county-by-county and school-by-school results from its Balanced Scorecard. The results showed that the 42 public schools in Cabell and Wayne counties exceeded the state average in the majority of indicators, but achievement in math lagged.

The scorecard evaluated schools on five criteria: proficiency in English and math based on statewide testing, high school graduation rates, English language proficiency among non-native speakers and student success as measured by attendance and behavior in elementary schools, remaining on track to graduate and post-secondary success in high schools.

In Cabell County, most elementary schools appear to do well in most indicators, but math remains a problem at several. When children leave elementary schools and begin attending the larger middle schools and even larger high schools, language skills are a bit of a problem and math performance is weak. In addition, the two high schools fail to meet state standards on attendance.

Cabell Midland High School’s attendance rate was 89.43 percent, and Huntington High’s was only 86.15 percent. It’s hard to learn when you’re not in class.

As a group — there are always exceptions, but as a group — students classified as economically disadvantaged started out behind in elementary school and didn’t catch up.

Results were similar in Wayne County — mixed results at the elementary level, with most schools partially meeting standards in language but not in math. Overall, math performance declined at the middle school and high school levels.

It was a different story in Putnam County. There, Hurricane and Winfield high schools partially met math standards but Buffalo and Poca high schools didn’t. At the elementary level, most schools did better in math than they did in language.

Math is one of those subjects that has been a problem for educators for generations. Various teaching methods have been tried, but performance always lags behind that in other subjects. It doesn’t help that American culture tends to approve of being bad at math. As Barbie said a few years ago, “Math is hard. Let’s go shopping.”

Children may have difficulty understanding why they should learn long division when the calculator on their phones can do the same job faster. Or what math has to do with anything other than balancing a checkbook. In these days of electronic banking, who even does that? How many people can tell stories of a cashier having trouble making change when the cash register can’t calculate it?

Formulas can turn kids off. Not many high school students find beauty in solving quadratic equations or proving theorems in geometry.

But math is about patterns, estimating, predicting and finding relationships, among many other things. The same problem-solving methods people learn in algebra and geometry pop up in other endeavors. As David L. Goodstein, a former professor of physics and applied physics at the California Institute of Technology, told his students, “The mathematician is the guardian of clarity and precision of thought.”

Perhaps the latest new thing in math education will turn things around or at least get them pointed in the right direction. Perhaps a shift in popular culture will get kids more interested in numbers. West Virginia has long needed a more educated work force, and math is an important tool of an educated person, whether that person is in a white collar or a blue collar job.

The answers aren’t easy, and educators continue to look for them. Too many of our children start behind, and too many don’t catch up. The solution to this problem is out there somewhere. Finding it is hard. Let’s not go shopping instead.

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