Xian Hui Ang: Ways to Improve Math in the US

America may carry the most Olympic gold medals in the world, making it one of the best countries in athletics. However, in terms of education, America is unfortunately not ranked at the top. When it comes to Math specifically, America can be considered as one of the lower performing countries. According to Bloomberg, the U.S. was ranked 25th among 34 countries on an international math test in 2010. Community College students are not qualified enough for college-level math – they have to take “remedial” or “developing” math classes instead. These aforementioned evidences are enough to prove that America is falling behind in Math.

The immediate public response to this issue is to solely blame the teachers. The teachers are said to be not qualified enough to teach Math. Besides that, there is also not enough supply of Math teachers because Math graduates would usually work in big firms or companies to earn good money. Hence, President Obama has invested more money in improving STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) education and Jim Simmons founded Math for America. Although the supply and quality of Math teachers are contributors to the decline of Math in America, there are also other factors to consider as well, such as the Math standards in the country, the amount of assigned Math homework, the mentality students and parents carry, and also the learning method.

In Beth Bye’s lecture last week, she mentioned that 60 to 70 percent of community college students couldn’t pass elementary math. I personally believe that this is because of the difference in standards within different school districts. Since school districts get to decide and plan their own curriculum, the materials, which are being taught in class, and also the exam standards, which the students are being tested at, are at variance.

This results in students having different math knowledge from one another – which may not exactly be a good thing.  For example, student A from district X wants to attend school in district Y. Due to the difference in curriculum, there are some areas in Math that district X did not cover but district Y did. This leads to student A failing district Y’s Math entry test because student A never learned the other areas that are covered in district Y’s curriculum.

Although this idea may sound a little too ambitious, I propose to standardize the Math curriculum nationally. This way, all the students across the country will be equipped with the same Math knowledge. The chances of them being equally qualified to take standardized Math test will also increase. The implementation of this idea should start off from the two lowest grades first.  From there, we can work our way up to other grades and finally transform all K-12 levels.

There has always been a debate about how Asians are “stereotypically” better at Math. With my personal experience in teaching Math to Asian kids in both pre-kindergarten and also after-school tutor center, I can safely say that there are many kids who struggle with Math as well. One of the reasons why “Asians are better at Math” is because Asians do a lot of Math homework.

Coming from an Asian country myself, my childhood experience with Math was grueling. I started attending Math tutor classes like Kumon and E.nopi at the age of four, where I had to do one math worksheet every day. In addition to that, I had math homework almost everyday when I started going to school– and it had been like that for all 11 years of my education. Personally, I feel that all the work paid off because I was ready for college-level Math. I feel that students should not carry a negative mentality of “teachers pulling this kind of bullshit all the time” when they assign homework. Math is one of those subjects where practice makes perfect – the more questions you practice, the better you can grasp the mathematical concepts.

Speaking of mentality, Harold Stevenson mentioned, “American mothers expressed stronger beliefs than Chinese and Japanese mothers that their children were born with their math abilities.” This explains why teachers are always getting blamed when students are not scoring well in Math. In my belief, this view should be changed. In order to do that, I suggest that parents check and sign on their child’s Math homework every week. This way, parents can check on their child’s progress and also gauge where their children’s standards are.

In one of the lecture series, Chris Kafoglis, a teacher from a magnet school in New Haven, mentioned that he implements Mastery-based learning in his Math class. This method definitely helps in building the student’s basic foundation in Math and making sure that the student understands the mathematical concept.

The math tutor classes I mentioned previously (Kumon and E.nopi) are both mastery-based learning. When I was still in Kumon, I was given six different worksheets to work on every day. If I score badly in one of the worksheets, I would be given the exact same worksheet to work on again. If I do well, I would be able to progress to the next level. This learning method worked for me, and I have seen it worked for my students as well. Hence, I would suggest the math teachers to use mastery-based learning in class.

America still has a lot to work on when it comes to improving Math education. Although teacher quality is an issue, we should still always open up to other areas for improvement. Making sure that all children have equal access to the same Math knowledge and ensuring that all of them have strong foundation in Math are definitely some methods that the policy makers should consider.

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