(Please excuse my dear Aunt Sally)
Originally published in the South Roanoke Circle
Given the frequent bad news associated with math education and American students, it may be hard to believe that American students just won the 56th International Mathematical Olympiad, defeating the Chinese, Koreans, and Russians for the first time in 21 years. Furthermore, our coaches say that the number of master mathematicians on the United States bench is deeper than it has ever been.
But how does this square with the almost simultaneous reporting of the most recent results from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS)? TIMSS results come out every two years and the results remain predictably poor for the United States. This year, only 40% of fourth graders and 33% of eighth graders score at the proficient level in mathematics. This represents a 2% drop in scores from the previous assessment.
An example of an after-school mathematics problem for second graders would be asking students to write a written narrative that uses the equation 49+(18-3). An answer might be:
Farmer Jones has 18 cows and shipped three to the county fair. While these three cows were gone, a fence broke and 49 of his neighbor cows came on to Farmer Jones’ property. Farmer Jones now has 64 cows on his property. A traditional solution to this problem would look like this:
Obviously, the traditional solution seems more mathematical and those of you that were students in the 70’s are now thinking that a written narrative must be a “new” math that is designed by well meaning educators to make students feel good about themselves, but nothing could be farther from the truth. The narrative answer demonstrates that a student fully understands the concept of order of operations while the traditional solution only assures us that the student has memorized the order of operations. Yes, it is true that most elementary students can memorize order of operations (Please excuse my dear Aunt Sally) and will be successful in second grade mathematics, but what happens when the problems become more complex in eighth grade algebra or high school calculus? At higher levels of mathematics, a student with understanding will necessarily do better and are more likely to choose a college major in a lucrative STEM field.
Unfortunately, I do not know of any after-school mathematics groups in the surrounding area that I can recommend, but there are a couple of simple things you can do to increase your child’s mathematic fluency. They may not produce an International Olympiad mathlete, but they can help your child more fully engage in mathematics. I encourage you to investigate school mathematics clubs for your child. Frequently, school clubs such as MathCounts and Math Olympiad provide exposure to complex mathematics problems in a collegial setting, and students travel to math meets where they can compete against other similarly inclined students. Because these are after school and group oriented, students get to spend time talking about the solutions with both teacher and fellow students.
You should also spend a little time looking at your child’s mathematics text and his or her homework assignments. In this era of drill and test, it is common practice to assign a large number of basic computation problems and skip the most difficult problems in a chapter in an effort to make sure a student has as much practice as possible. It is up to you to be sure that your child is doing the last three or four homework problems at the end of any section, as these are always the problems that require the greatest mastery of the topic. In addition, most texts have an underutilized “further your understanding” section. Be the smart parent and use everything your child’s text provides.
We must remember that the goal is not for students to do well in second grade arithmetic. Success at this level must be viewed as a means to future success in higher level mathematics.