I Can Fix Our Math Problem


That is a pretty bold statement considering we are one of the worst countries in the developed world when it comes to math scores.  Years ago, while teaching math at the junior high level, a group of us math teachers came together to decided ‘enough was enough.’  We studied the problems we were having teaching basic math to seventh grade students.  It quickly became clear that the problem was their lack of basic skills when they entered junior high.  Many of them did not even know their multiplication tables.  A larger percentage could not add, subtract, divide or multiply numbers with any consistency. Fractions and negative numbers were considered by most students the equivalent of learning calculus!  Our problem was moving forward in the math curriculum with students who could not do basic math, so this placed us in the proverbial stream without a paddle.

We decided to attack the problem at its source.  The first day of school, we brought all the seventh graders into the multi-purpose room and tested their basic math skills.  If I remember correctly, the test had about four problems in addition, four in subtraction, four in two and three digit multiplication and the same number for two and three digit division.  We collected the test, graded it, and to our astonishment, only about 20% passed!  I remember sitting there with the other math teachers in total shock!  Almost 80% of our seventh graders could not do basic math, and this was almost 20 years ago! For a while we just sat there wondering if this was a fixable problem.  At this point we had little choice but to continue on with our plan, since it was designed to fix this type of problem.

There were about 100 students and five teachers in the class.  We divided the students into five equal groups and headed off to our classrooms.  After three weeks of instruction in basic math, we brought the students back into the cafeteria to test them on basic addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.  The results were catastrophic!   As we teachers sat there in total shock looking at the results of our feeble attempt at teaching basic math, we began to realize the depth of the problem. Three weeks later we tested them on the four basic math groups, with the addition of decimals, with equally dismal results.

This is where we deviated from the norm, requiring every student who did not pass the two tests with an average score of 75% or higher to retake the first unit in basic math.  This amounted to almost 75% of the seventh grade.  The students who passed with a 75% or higher moved on to fractions.  The remaining students were reassigned to a teacher who would re-teach the first unit.  At the end of six weeks we tested them again and promoted them according to whether they passed their test with 75% or higher.

At the end of the year, a mere 12% of students made it through all six units.  Each year our scores and passing rate improved despite the fact we did very little different.  We finally determined that the improvement was coming from the elementary schools teachers who were feeling the backlash from our program.  Students were coming in with better basic skills thus allowing them to move more easily through our units.

Our program lasted five years with steady improvement in our basic math test scores, and then it was scrapped for reasons I cannot remember.  We all knew that we were doing the right thing by ensuring that our students KNEW basic math!  I met one of those students recently; he thanked me for making sure he could do basic math and said that he is amazed at the number of people he meets who could not do simple math.

Here is my solution:

  1. I am offering my services to the school system to help teachers develop a math program for the high school to begin fixing the problem. Here is what I propose.

a. all up and coming ninth grade students will be tested on basic math skills.  The test will be developed and checked by the high school math team.  In order to move on to the higher level math classes, they must pass this test.  If they wish, they will be allowed to retake the test during the summer.

b. All students who fail to pass the competency test will be required to enroll in remediation program which will be set up similar to what we did 20 years ago.  Every nine weeks they will have the opportunity to move to the next level of the program.  This would be treated as a general math credit towards graduation with nine weeks being 1/4 credit.

c.   At the end of the year any student who does not pass the remedial math program would be required to retake the class or pass the basic entrance test given prior to the beginning of the program.

d. The four units would be:

Unit 1 – addition, subtraction, multiplication, division and decimals

Unit 2- addition, subtraction, multiplication and division of fractions with the addition of ratios

Unit  3- All the above with positive and negative numbers

Unit 4- Higher level math to be decided

I make this offer fully aware that the school administration will ignore my proposal.  As an experienced math teacher I know first hand what is going on in our public schools but believe it can be fixed if teachers and administrators are willing to make bold decisions.  What we are doing IS NOT WORKING.  This is no fault of any one person but the result of a complex mixture of social trends leading us down a very steep and slippery slope.  WE CAN FIX IT IF WE REALLY WANT TO.  The initial impact of a program like this would be enormous as the onslaught of unprepared students fail to meet standards, but there has to be a beginning and I can think of no better time than NOW!

While discussing my idea with an fellow math colleges he made the comment that we should do this in the 6th grade!  I believe he is right!

One last thing.  Do not be fooled when you hear that the high school is starting a new math program.  All they are doing is changing the name so that we can not tell what is being taught!

The new names are Math 1, Math 2, Math 3 and Math 4.  How nondescript can you get?

My number is in the phone book.



North and South Korea Together Again

Okhwan with his bike

Many of us have watched as North Koreans mourned the death of their ruler Kim Jong Il.   Groomed to take his place was his son, Kim Jong Un, who few know anything about.   Since the North Korean press is merely a puppet of the government,  the information we were shown was highly suspect.  In what seemed an unrelated event at the time, my son  noticed a biker near our local market.  He called me to asked me if I wanted to check on him to see if he needed a place to stay.  I jumped into the car and drove up to the market where I saw a lonely biker standing in the dark looking quite forlorn.  I quickly notice he was Oriental  and then saw that he had no seat on his bike.   I introduced myself; he introduced himself as Okhwan; we chatted for a short time, and then feeling comfortable with him, I asked if he needed a place to stay.  He quickly answered ‘yes,’ and then I instructed him to head down the road as I would followed with my lights since it was dark.  Soon we arrived at our home.   Okhwan parked his bike and soon became a guest in our home.  I suggested that he shower and clean up a little while we found something for him to eat.  After a short time we were sitting in the living room, asking questions and getting to know our guest.

The seatless bike

We quickly learned the he is from South Korea and on a very long bike trek for the ‘unification of the Koreas.’  He has been riding his bike for almost TEN YEARS in over 190 countries, covering almost 300,000 miles!  Many of those miles were done without the advantage of a SEAT!  It seems that Okhwan decided early in his ride that removing the seat and increasing his discomfort would convey the pain and misery the splitting of his mother country has endured for over 50 years.  He explained that many families were divided by this split, never to see their relatives again. When I asked him about the crying and sobbing that was shown on TV when Kim Jong iL died, he said it was all staged for the international media, and that most North Koreans were happy that he was dead and very fearful of his son!

Many people ask me why I let strangers into my home.  I cannot count the incredibly enriching evenings we have had with bikers who have stayed with us through the decades.  We have had bikers from all across our country and many parts of the world.  They have blessed us with numerous great stories and infinite wisdom.  We feel that our lives are better because of the exposure to so many different people, their adventures and cultures.  Okhwan is a wonderful person who genuinely believes in peace and that ordinary people can bring about real changes in the world.  The only bad thing about Okhwan’s visit is that he left too soon to be able to meet many of our friends.  He says he will be back some day.  He is currently biking across the mid-west in route to San Francisco where he will board a plane and return to his home in South Korea where he plans to run for Congress.  I wish him all the luck in the world!  He has in his unique way devoted his life to PEACE.

Sue and our Okhwan as he gets ready to continue on his journey

If you wish to read more about Okhwan I have several links you can use.

A recent article after he left our house.


His blog.