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:
- 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.