Math scares your child’s elementary school teacher — and that should frighten you

Daniel Willingham:

American students remain stumped by math. The 2019 scores for the National Assessment of Educational Progress test — known as NAEP — were published last month, showing that performance for fourth- and eighth-graders hasn’t budged since 2009. That’s a year after the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, convened by President George W. Bush, concluded that American math achievement was “mediocre.”

The panel offered dozens of ideas for improvement, leading with the common-sense suggestion to strengthen the elementary math curriculum, which it deemed diffuse, shallow and repetitious in many schools. But improved curricula won’t help unless we acknowledge another significant problem: Many elementary teachers don’t understand math very well, and teaching it makes them anxious.

Consider why American kids struggle. Mathematical competence depends on three types of knowledge: having memorized a small set of math facts (like the times table), knowing standard algorithms to solve standard problems (like long division), and understanding why algorithms work (knowing why the standard method of solving long division problems yields the correct answer).

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction has granted thousands of mulligans to elementary reading teachers who cannot pass the “Foundations of Reading” content knowledge exam. The FORT is based on Massachusetts’ highly successful MTEL requirements.

The data clearly indicate that being able to read is not a requirement for graduation at Madison East High School, especially if you are black or Hispanic.