Math education in the United States is consistently under the spotlight, in part because the majority of kids aren’t performing well on international tests that compare math achievement. Since jobs in science, technology, engineering and math fields are projected to grow, the country’s poor math performance worries many educators, business leaders and policy makers. Many affluent parents, who are themselves often employed in STEM fields, understand how important strong math skills could be to their children’s future success. Unhappy with the quality of math instruction in public schools, these families are seeking extracurricular math training for their children in the form of camps, clubs and competitions. And it’s working. For kids who love math and have access to these types of programs, high level math ability is increasing.

In The Atlantic, Peg Tyre describes what makes these extracurricular (and often expensive) math programs so successful. She found that almost universally teachers in these elite programs focus on conceptual math, not memorization or formulas. Students use their conceptual knowledge to explore, conjecture, predict and solve open-ended problems. And it’s fun because the focus is on solving a complicated, challenging problems, not on practicing one skill over and over. Tyre writes:

“Rifkin trains her teachers to expect challenging questions from students at every level, even from pupils as young as 5, so lessons toggle back and forth between the obvious and the mind-bendingly abstract. ‘The youngest ones, very naturally, their minds see math differently,’ she told me. ‘It is common that they can ask simple questions and then, in the next minute, a very complicated one. But if the teacher doesn’t know enough mathematics, she will answer the simple question and shut down the other, more difficult one. We want children to ask difficult questions, to engage so it is not boring, to be able to do algebra at an early age, sure, but also to see it for what it is: a tool for critical thinking. If their teachers can’t help them do this, well—’ Rifkin searched for the word that expressed her level of dismay. ‘It is a betrayal.'”

Tyre’s article shows that with good instruction, kids from every background can succeed at the highest levels. The big question remains, how can this type of teaching become the norm for all students from the earliest ages? Without some big systemic changes, deep math preparation could quickly become yet another barrier to economic equality in this country.

The Math Revolution

Please consider disabling it for our site, or supporting our work in one of these ways Subscribe Now > On a sultry evening last July, a tall, soft-spoken 17-year-old named David Stoner and nearly 600 other math whizzes from all over the world sat huddled in small groups around wicker bistro tables, talking in low voices and obsessively refreshing the browsers on their laptops.

Is Quality Math Preparation The Next Equity Battleground? 22 February,2016Katrina Schwartz

  • I liked Tyre’s article, especially the connection with games and math in context. Once you’re talking about it as a civil right, though, you’ve got to get to Robert Moses and what the Algebra Project has been doing and talking about for decades.

  • In my opinion, schools, on their own, are going to catch up with this divide too slowly, if at all. I think the two viable and necessary strategies for improving the situation ASAP are:

    1) Improving, expanding, and publicizing online resources aimed at students who aren’t getting enough out of their classrooms (aka, and AoPS)

    2) Scaling up efforts to create more in-person extracurricular programs (aka, Math Circles and summer programs like Mathcamp and BEAM)

    Additionally, I don’t think the technical accessibility of many public programs and websites like AoPS and is in question. However, I think there’s a lot more than just accessibility (technologically, financial or otherwise) creating this divide. It really takes an active hand: such as teacher at that school recognizing that a dozen specific students who would otherwise have just moved with the tides of their environment, might love math if they saw it in an investigatory context. The teacher or councilor then has to reach out to that student and maybe their parents as well, leveraging their reputation as a good teacher who cares about this student to get the student to put aside their other responsibilities and try coming. AND THEN those students have to come to the program/register for the site and find that they’re on an even footing with those around them, not ‘behind’ or ‘out of the loop.’ AND THEN those students still have years of fighting against social pressure in front of them, pressure to switch back to a path that their parents and community understand better, AND ALSO simple, internal uncertainty because no one they know and no one like them has taken this road before.

    Fortunately, there’s a ton of amazing math out there, problem-solving focused math that doesn’t require significant preexisting mathematical training. Take, for example, Dan Zaharopol’s sock puzzle from the article (combinatorics), and then there’s graph theory, game theory, the study of surfaces and knots… (the list is infinite)… All topics which can be used to introduce students to math in a way that’s immediately compelling and accessible to anyone.

    .9999… = 1 was the first big eye-opener for me. But only because I was lucky enough to have a teacher up for the debate. “.9999… just isn’t one, can’t you SEE that?!” was what the ‘rules’ that I knew told me. But “is this really the rule?” is not the right question, the right question is “why does the mathematical community choose to define decimals this way?” The first question makes math into an exercise in memory and following directions. The second question opens math up into a debate and a collaborative exploration of a frontier.

    But what will it take to scale the kind of outreach that BEAM does, or, at the least, to make these online resources cross the cultural divide? For me, this is still a /very/ open question and I’m all ears for advice!

  • Mindy Bell

    By allowing these students to use their critical thinking skills to solve math problems, they are learning to be lifelong learners and truly understand the field of mathematics. It seems that we are so busy pushing “kill & drill” to meet all of the standards we need to meet, we miss out on this critical piece of education.

  • Olivia Cosby

    By focusing math learning on a conceptual learning basis instead of a factual one, we are actually encouraging children to think more critically. This is a huge reason that these camps succeed. Ramani and Siegler (2008) actually proved that students who learned math skills based on a number line board game had better testing scores than those using a color based line. Singapore has some of the highest math testing scores in the world, and they use a whole part model to teach their math skills. By starting this learning early on, we can increase math skills further down the line. If students do not understand the concepts behind their math, and the real world implications of their formulas, they will never truly learn how to apply the skills. I think the real challenge is going to be incorporating the skills that these camp teachers have into the every day classroom. It has to start at the basis of how we instruct our teachers. By teaching them the skills they need to transform math into a daily life activity, we can make sure that students are incorporating these skills as well. Many teachers at this point in time, at least from my experience, only have a knowledge of the procedures and rules that go into math. When a student asks why, they generally say “Because that’s just how it is.” By creating a better focus on teaching math in our lower school educators, we can increase both a motivation to teach math in a more conceptual way, which will increase learning motivation in math for even students that are not interested in mathematics. This of course is a problem more easily solved theoretically than realistically but discussion is as good a place to start as any.


Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She's worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She's a staff writer for KQED's education blog MindShift.

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