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Are Schools Thinking Too Short Term By Skimping on Numeracy Instruction?

Good math grades indicate your child is able to pass math tests.  Nothing more.  A bigger question is this:”Is your child building a true understanding of numbers?”

Many American students, as we outline below, are not building math fluency. The need to cover an ever-expanding math curriculum is squeezing out time spent exercising and perfecting basic math skills.

Numeracy Skills vs Math Grades or Proficiency

Numeracy is the ability to understand and work with numbers, to “get” numbers. At a basic level it is addition and subtraction, but it is also a dexterity and understanding of numbers — relative sizes, natural relationships, backwards estimating, rates of change, etc. — that makes it possible to apply math in the real world, to see a mathematical way to understand or solve everyday issues.

Good math grades are different.  That’s about school, about accurately answering math questions and equations, without necessarily understanding why a method works.  Good students are professionals.  They figure out what they need to know to pass, which is different from being able to apply math theories and ideas in the real world.

Most US schools are accountable for math grades, not numeracy skills, and so grades are where teachers spend their time. The problem with learning methods to solve equations is that once you are out of school and have forgotten the formula, you are nowhere. There is no understanding of numbers to fall back on.

In a recent OECD survey of 16-24 year olds, the US ranked 24 out of 24 countries tested in numeracy skills.  Think about it, given all the money the US spends on education, 24th!  The US millennials tested behind Estonia, Cyprus and Poland, but interestingly not that far behind countries with accountability-based philosophies similar to the US, such as England, Ireland and France.

The current crop of students are on a similar sub-par math path.  International OECD testing of 15-year olds placed the US 26th in its most recent PISA survey.

US adults do poorly in math in international tests because they have forgotten the methods they at one time knew.  With that memorized “knowledge” gone, they are lost when applying math to real world questions.

Why Numeracy Matters

Numeracy matters for three very big reasons:

  1. It’s a foundation for accelerated math competence
  2. Once learned, it’s a life skill
  3. The world is shrinking — overseas relative gains in math will impact young American adults

Numeracy as a foundation.  Numeracy for math is the equivalent of literacy in learning.  It’s the foundational skill, acquired over a period of time, that makes new mathematical material accessible.

The first 4-5 years of school are about skill development, numeracy — relative sizes, estimates, etc.  — where the aim is to build a math foundation.  Then the knowledge-based math curriculum kicks in.  Now the focus is correct answers, not numeracy.  While these early years of numeracy instruction are plenty of time for many children, many others are being left behind.  And because they never do attain mastery of numbers, they never do catch up or better said, they do not achieve the math literacy found in most other OECD countries.

This same phenomenon is playing out in reading in US schools.  A crammed fact-based curriculum is pushing into lower and lower grades, restricting the time allocated for reading instruction, literacy.  Unperfected reading skills are an impediment to learning for many children throughout school and then through life (US 16-24 year-olds rank 20th on the OECD survey mentioned earlier, 16th for US adults all ages).

Numeracy for life.  The key to learning is automaticity.  Once something is known sub-consciously, like riding a bike, it can endure for almost a lifetime despite only occasional practice or use.  Numeracy is one of those skills.  Once you truly get numbers, you won’t forget them.  A US survey quoted Andrew Hacker, a college math teacher,  in an article called The Wrong Way To Teach Math found that  82 percent of adults could not compute the cost of a carpet when told its dimensions and square-yard price.  The other 18% may have forgotten the formula, but because they are numerate, they could figure out what the formula should be.

International math competition.  More and more people work at home … anywhere in the world.  This means, more and more of your child’s competitors for jobs will be overseas. The fact that the other countries are progressing in developing numeracy skills matters.  It affects the relative attractiveness of workers.

Knowledge vs Skills: Why Numeracy Skills Are Not Emphasized In School

It is well-known that the expanding curriculum has squeezed out arts, recess and gym.  What is less known is that this same curriculum creep, content pushed down into earlier and earlier grades, is taking up time that was previously spent on building generalized skills — including numeracy.

It is easier to teach methods to solve a math problem than it is to teach why the method works.  You can’t blame the teachers here.  More and more they are being charged with achieving good results for their kids this week, this year, now.  It’s no longer about contributing to a life-skill foundation.  For teachers these days, it’s doing whatever it takes to get their students through the tests.  And if the tests are multiple choice or are based on right/wrong answers (and not deep understanding of numbers), then that’s what teachers will do.  And the quickest and most reliable way to do that is get their students to memorize methods to solve the various math questions.

And so the system that has put the US in international math basement perpetuates.

Common Core: Process Undermines Its Numeracy Mission

Lost amongst the complaints about Federal overreach and standardized testing is the fact that the new Common Core curriculum attempts to make numeracy a bigger part of the student’s math education.  They call it “rigor” — authentic command of math concepts, procedural skills and the ability to apply math concepts to real-world problems.

One way the Common Core recommends teaching numeracy is to provide 5 different ways to solve a single equation.  This approach creates context and number understanding by looking at a problem from many angles.  While it would promote numeracy if students had enough time to test, explore and reason through these angles, the reality of US education is that there is not enough time.  It is quicker for teachers to simply show the students all five methods.

So instead of memorizing one method they don’t really understand, but can pass the test with, students are now memorizing five methods, still without necessarily understanding the underlying problem.

Helping Your Child With Numeracy

If your child is struggling with math, don’t panic.  There are many ways to teach math and it could be that the school has yet to find the right approach for your child.  It is also true, however, that due to the rush to get through the curriculum, the teacher could be moving too fast for your child.  In that case you may want to consider an online self-paced math curriculum to make sure your child has a chance to learn and absorb the numeracy basics at his own pace.

It is also worth trying to understand if the problem is isolated to math.  Being an abstract subject, math is one of the first true challenges to learning.  Sometimes a difficulty with math is the first clue of an auditory processing (listening) or working memory (thinking) issue that should be addressed separately.  There are  math interventions that build the cognitive skills needed for numeracy and eventual math proficiency.

In any event, numeracy matters.  Makes sure your child is on track.  Don’t let him be one of the 82% who cannot price out a measure of carpet as an adult.