Math: Take-It-Or-Leave-It?

The following is excerpted from a fact sheet produced by Achieve, a D.C.-based group that advocates for tougher academic standards.

Far too many students in the U.S. give up on math early because it does not come easy and they believe only students with innate ability can really be “good” at mathematics, a notion that is all too often reinforced by adults who believe the same thing. Yet, in most other countries, students accept that mathematics -- especially advanced math courses -- can be challenging, but know that with enough motivation and perseverance, they can learn difficult material.

The uniquely American attitude towards math -- the perception that only people who are naturally gifted at math are good at it -- leads to a dangerous corollary: that it is ok to be “bad at math.” This is a significant factor in the comparatively low math achievement of students in the U.S., which limits students’ education and career options and makes it harder for the U.S. to compete.

Things you never hear about reading and writing (but often hear about math):

-- “I’m just not that good at writing, so why bother?”
-- “When will I actually use reading and writing in the real world?”
-- “Only nerds like to read and write.”
-- “I’m just not smart enough for writing.”
-- “My parents can’t read, so why do I need to learn how to read?”
-- “It’s just a fact that guys are better at reading than girls are.”
-- “I’m not a writing person; it doesn’t come naturally to me, so
why should I try?

There is a serious gap between how Americans value math generally and how they value math for their own enrichment.

-- Most American middle school students (84 percent) would rather clean their rooms, eat their vegetables, take out the garbage and go to the dentist than do their math homework. Yet these same students say they want to do better in math (67 percent) and that doing well in math is important to them (94 percent).

As a writer, I often do hear people say that they could never write, or that they are simply not good at writing. But I've never heard any one brag about being illiterate or unable to write a sentence. The take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward math in this country really puzzles me; it's a big part of why I wanted to do this project. If you have any ideas about (x=why?) Americans are so quick to disregard math, I'd love to hear them.

By Michael Alison Chandler  |  December 16, 2008; 10:00 AM ET  | Category:  Math Around the World , Math Literacy
Previous: Imaginary Numbers | Next: The Massachusetts Story


This is something I have struggled with for years with my 2 children. It began in 7th grade and continues (one is a junior and the other a sophomore). A good English teacher can work to improve the writing abilities of a classroom of students with a wide range of abilities. My kids have had some great teachers that allowed every student to re-write each paper as many times as they wanted during the grading period. With each version the teacher provided comments and feedback to help them improve their writing. Math just doesn't work this way. I think some of it goes back to the fact that beginning in 7th grade, the kids are divided into 2 tracts. If they aren't in the "high math" class, the kids figure they aren't good in math. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. There is no accomodation for the kids in the middle (both of mine fall there), who with a little extra help could achieve more. Plus, you can never catch up to the advanced class.

Posted by: hockeymom3 | December 16, 2008 11:06 AM | Report abuse

This is very true. I see it with many of the students I tutor and sometimes the parents re-inforce this notion. One of the problems I have found is that students learn math in a wide variety of different ways so one teacher may not be making sense, but another would. Another problem is confidence with math since you are either right or wrong with math whereas in writing, there's much more gray area.

Posted by: DCMathTutor | December 16, 2008 12:38 PM | Report abuse

people are always trotting out
"you'd never hear anybody say
'i was never good at literacy'_"
when in fact, anybody in the
written-word-based professions
hears it all the time.
thanks for calling this lazy writer
on this highly-overworked trope.

anyway, a better analogue is music.
where it's even more common to hear
people admit that they're unskilled.
but what you very *seldom* hear is
"i *hate* music". what people hate
are certain *kinds* of music ...
if only it were well-known that
people thinking of themselves
as math-haters actually only hate
certain *kinds* of math ...

Posted by: vlorbik | December 16, 2008 1:18 PM | Report abuse

For the same reasons that people say, 'I'm no good at languages...' In this country, for some reason, that is OK ('Everyone in the world speaks English anyway, and that's only going to continue...')
People stubbornly repeat the 'I'm no good at..' remark about languages, math, and yes, music - when in each of these cases, practice is key to becoming baseline-proficient. Then more study and more practice makes one more skillful, not just proficient.
When you realize this, you're not intimidated by math, languages or music lessons.

Posted by: KathyWi | December 16, 2008 5:28 PM | Report abuse

The notion that it is OK to be bad at math is an excuse that has been accepted for years in America. Many parents and some high-profile individuals that children look up to have even taken to joking about their poor math skills.

Sylvan Learning and the National Education Association recently released research from a survey of parents and teachers that showed parents find that math presents the largest challenge for their children, with 71 percent of parents noting that their child needs help with math. Additionally, 33 percent of parents said they wish they did not have to be involved in homework as much as they are, while 62 percent of teachers say that parents should ideally be more involved in homework help.

Even if a parent feels unprepared or unskilled to help his or her child with math, there are options such as after-school study groups or tutoring programs. Parents can also set the tone for the importance of lifelong learning by working with their child and child's teacher to learn or relearn the same math concepts their child is learning. When all is said and done, we all need to work together to overcome this idea that math is “the bad guy” and give children the best chance possible to excel in their studies.

-Judy Ann Brown, Mathematics Program Manager for Sylvan Learning

Posted by: Sylvan1 | December 17, 2008 9:55 AM | Report abuse

I think KathyWi is right, mathematics stands out as being something that requires lots of practice. I believe people say they are no good at math as a way to let themselves off the hook about having to practice.

If being bad at math is a deficiency of natural talent then people who are bad at math are unlucky. Otherwise, if mathematics is something that requires dedication and practice then being bad at math becomes a personal failing which can be embarrassing.

However, there are many things in life that require practice such as sports, art or music.

I think mathematics stands out in that it's all or nothing. It's hard to know that one is improving. The reward is also low in terms of social approval. It's a solitary pleasure. (Few people are going to want to watch you solve calculus problems.)

Posted by: mathlete | December 17, 2008 1:41 PM | Report abuse

I think it is time that The Post, as well as other News commentators, have a much more serious, complex discussion about what math education really MEANS to people, instead of bringing up the tired generalities of test scores compared to other countries. Reading and writing are pretty much used by the general population almost everyday whether it be in text-messaging,emails,filling out forms, writing research papers or reading comic books. Math, however, once you get beyond the basics needed to calculate your daily expenses and balance your accounts (or not)is generally perceived as something you have to get on your school resume to get you into college, with little understanding of what it can do for you. I would guess that most people don't see the necessity for advanced math unless they plan to go into the hard sciences or statistical areas: engineering, medical school, physics,research,etc. And given the alarming as well as pathetic performance of our current economy, it would seem that we need to bump up our understanding and practice of basic math as applied to calculations of credit card and mortgage debts before mandating trigonometry and calulus for all. Then, of course, there are lies, damn lies and statistics.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | December 19, 2008 1:51 AM | Report abuse

I always found it frustrating to have teachers and administrators tell a kid "that's OK, I didn't get math either." I was really astounded when a principal did it. Parents would routinely do it right in front of the kids.

Posted by: ggartner | December 19, 2008 5:36 AM | Report abuse

I remember my son's 3rd or 4th grade teacher saying she didn't like to teach fractions because she didn't understand them herself (giggle giggle), so I taught him. I had elementary teachers who understood and enjoyed math, and I did too (as a female student in the 50s). Most elementary teachers don't have to take a lot of math, don't understand it, don't like it, and that attitude goes on to their students (mostly the girls for whom they role model). If colleges of education required a lot more math courses of their elementary teachers, we would have fewer problems with students hating math. You can't understand or enjoy that which is poorly taught.

Posted by: pattipeg1 | December 20, 2008 8:55 AM | Report abuse

Math is its own language, with its own alphabet, much like music or, say, Greek. Students who have difficulty processing the different symbology of math often get left behind due to the time restrictions caused by the need to teach to the requirements of standardized testing and the variety of student ability within the class. Often these students will never have the opportunity to "catch up" and will subsequently give up trying.

Students are thrown from the relatively simple manipulation of numbers, a concrete chore (3 dogs plus 3 more dogs equals 6 dogs), into the deep end of the numerical concept pool of x and y and the manipulation of fractional portions, then into the arcane world of Geometry. Especially difficult is the requirement to memorize theorems and proofs - simply understanding the concepts will not provide a passing grade.

Many students will never understand the concepts. Some will be able to manipulate the formulas and get the right answers without truly understanding the subject. And a select few will understand the language and become fluent.

I would like to believe that this can be changed by some astounding new method of teaching, but it has been 30 years since my own experience, and, judging by that of my children currently struggling with the subject, this will not be happening soon.

Posted by: leuchars | December 20, 2008 12:40 PM | Report abuse

The comments below were in a NYTimes article today regarding mandatory Algabra testing for eighth graders in California.

According to the teacher's union, the state would need to hire 3,000 more teachers in order to teach basic algebra to all eighth graders. Currently half of all eighth graders take algebra, but only 25%, or 12.5% of all students are proficient. The state school superintendent, said the (testing) mandate was “a recipe for disaster.

To me it says we need to fire a whole generation of incompetent union protected teachers. The US will continue to fall behind developed countries, and will need to import even more skilled labor until we can rectify this problem. We cannot let school standards fall. Do we need a two tier system of technical schools and college prep schools??

About half of California eighth graders receive full algebra instruction, but only about a quarter of those who take it score proficient or above on standardized tests. The rate is even lower for black, Hispanic and poor students. David Sanchez, president of the California Teachers Association, said the algebra mandate would have required 3,000 more teachers, as well as training an additional 1,000 teachers.

Posted by: hdc77494 | December 22, 2008 12:21 AM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company