Math Matters: Why Our Students Must Not Fall Behind

An assistant principal explains how we got to this dire point in math education.

The Common Core State Standards, according to this assistant principal and former math coach, have the potential to positively impact how math is taught in American schools. (Photo: Washington Post/Getty Images)

Jul 22, 2013
is an assistant principal and a 2013 Hope Street Group National Teacher Fellow.

Thirty years ago, we learned from the report A Nation At Risk: the Imperative for Educational Reform that American students lagged far behind their international peers on a number of benchmarks.

The findings expressed serious concerns about content, expectations, time, and teaching. The release of the report was meant to spur a national reform effort, aimed at once again vaulting the American educational system to the forefront of the world. 

It’s 30 years later, and little has changed. In mathematics, for example, we still lag far behind. According to the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment, the U.S. is ranked 25th in math compared to other industrialized nations.

What’s worse is between 40 and 60 percent of our college students are taking remedial math and other courses to make up for the gaps left by their K-12 education.

It would seem that we have become complacent with mediocrity.

In 1983, A Nation at Risk warned us that, “In effect, we have a cafeteria style curriculum in which the appetizers and desserts can easily be mistaken for the main courses.”

Fortunately, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia. In mathematics, the standards are more focused, with an emphasis on learning progressions and logical development.

The response prior to CCSS by most states was to strip down curriculums, eliminating most of the emphasis on critical thinking. We began to prize memorization and formulaic response and we therefore created “mile-wide, inch-deep” curriculums. 

In short, the fastest way to catch up with other countries was to eliminate any thinking in mathematics. Using that logic, the quickest way to get dinner on the table is to not cook the chicken.

The Common Core State Standards are good for children. They are more rigorous and more focused on developing the critical thinking and conceptual understanding in mathematics that our students need. Admittedly, they are hard for teachers, schools, and districts.

Teachers are being asked to teach and assess in ways they may not be familiar with. Districts have to grapple with the costs of professional development, the necessary shifts in evaluation systems, and the reality that we have institutionalized low expectations for our students by dumbing down curricula and allowing them to lag behind.

And, certainly, no policy change or implementation is perfect. Some decry the lack of diversity in the standards, claiming that standardization is bad for American schools because it’s un-American. Others are not fans of the cost to states and districts in implementing the standards.

What many fail to realize is that the cost of incarceration, the cost of welfare, the cost of remedial courses at the college level, the cost of diminished tax bases and localized funding over the long term far outweigh the immediate costs of implementation.

The political side must be reminded that our students cannot compete in a flattened, global economy with other nations if we continue to lag.

The moralistic side of the argument is that we must not allow our students to fall behind in mathematics because providing them with anything less than the best education, the best standards, the best teachers, and the best outcomes is simply un-American.

And from a financial standpoint, we cannot let our students lag behind in mathematics any longer because the costs—socially and financially—are too great.

America needs to rid itself of its myopic outlook and realize that putting off the inevitable only makes the inevitable that much harder to deal with—and fund!


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