We want our students to learn a lot of things in school and one of them is math, a lot of math.
But it can be a challenging subject to teach well. In an often-cited national poll, a thousand middle schoolers agreed with this statement: “I’d rather eat broccoli than do math.” Maybe you felt the same way back in the day.
This sentiment is not about broccoli and it’s not even about math. It’s about how most of us have been taught math. We have a problem with math education in the United States.
Let’s look at the numbers
We are 36th out of 58 nations on a key mathematics assessment (Program for International Student Assessment). And we have a persistent gap in levels of math achievement between groups of students.
Even our highest-achieving students are not keeping up with students from other countries.
Frankly, if the current system of teaching math worked, we would see these statistics improving.
Research shows that the way math is taught in U.S. classrooms leads students (including our highest-performing students) to not perform up to their potential in math.
And contrary to what many may believe, grouping students by ability (tracking) actually lowers achievement in math for most students.
Sending the wrong message
Here are a few reasons why.
Tracking students in math sends a message to students that they are either smart in math or not smart in math. Stanford professor Carol Dweck and others have repeatedly found in their research that this message is detrimental to student achievement at all levels.
Tracking students in math also can lead teachers to homogenize their lesson plans, aiming at the perceived ability in the group rather than reaching to meet each students’ potential. This makes it harder for the students to extend their learning when they are ready to be challenged.
And here’s one of the worst things. Tracking groups turns classes into pressure cookers. Students who are pushed to accelerate can be taught to focus on speed and lack a depth of understanding they need to tackle complex problems once they need to apply math out in the real world.
Proven right here in California
We have additional research to suggest that we are headed in the right direction. The Silicon Valley Math Initiative studied eight California school districts that, like San Francisco, eliminated tracking from their math classes.
In addition to eliminating tracked classes, these districts provided high-quality teacher training in math instruction, including the use of math tasks with great breadth and depth and sophisticated approaches to assessing students. Students in these school districts made double-digit gains in math in comparison to other similar school districts.
Let’s face it: the old way of teaching math is not working. Taking off the good at math and bad at math labels gets us facing the in the right direction.