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The Math Wars: Improving Numeracy among American Students

The Math Wars: Improving Numeracy among American Students

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I’ve written before that I subscribe to The Economist because it provides a neutral perspective on life in the United States. Earlier this summer, I wrote about the success of states that have reverted to teaching phonics in order to enable students to read better. The article that inspired my phonics post was published by The Economist.

In the November 6 edition, The Economist called attention to America’s abysmal performance teaching math in an article titled “The Maths Wars.” The reporters write that America’s students have ranked poorly in international math exams for decades. In fact, American adults rank fourth from last in numeracy when compared with other rich countries.

American companies continue to fall short in finding employees who are qualified to meet their needs in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) skills. Nearly 30% of adults in the U.S. are comfortable only with simple math skills, which are defined as basic arithmetic, counting, and sorting.

The Economist reports that the scores may be getting worse. On the 2020 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) national exam, the scores of 13-year-old students dropped five points from their peers in 2012. Unfortunately, teachers and other academics cannot agree on how to reverse this decline.

Disagreements whether to teach math through rigorous memorization or through conceptual understanding have been a long-lasting debate in the U.S. since the late 1800s. Since the 1990s, the battles have become more political.

The reporters write that conservatives in the U.S. typically campaign for classical math, which is a focus on algorithms (rules to follow), memorizing those algorithms and multiplication tables, and teacher-led instruction. Students focus on the basics, exploring concepts after obtaining math skills.

Progressives in the U.S. favor a conceptual approach based on problem-solving and gaining number-sense. There is less emphasis on algorithms and memorizing. Students learn several ways to solve a problem before learning algorithms.

While our teachers agree that U.S. math education is sub-par, they cannot agree on how to improve it. The most recent implementation of a national math curriculum, the Common Core, has not helped since people on opposite sides of the political spectrum dislike it.

I have always done well in math. The instruction that I received in school was undoubtedly classical, requiring me to learn and memorize the basic rules of math before going on to higher level math. Because I continued to advance in math courses through undergrad and grad school, I was exposed to math concepts, but I was prepared thanks to my memorization of math tables and algorithms.

As a parent, I understood the conceptual version that my daughters’ school attempted to teach but I believe to this day that it was the wrong way to teach math, particularly for younger children. Every time I tried to help my daughters, I was told, “We aren’t allowed to learn it that way.”

The last two sentences in The Economist article are informative and depressing. The authors note, “While other countries implement math curriculums with a balance of rote and conceptual learning, America continues to swing from one pole to another, decade after decade. Just like the country’s politics, in other words.”

If we can’t reach a bipartisan solution on mathematics education, our economy is going to continue to widen between the haves and have-nots. At a minimum, we should agree on a bipartisan experiment.

We should also establish a competition within states between the curriculums and see what works best. Somehow, I expect the losing side will claim that the competition was rigged, and the real losers will be our children and their children.

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Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In September 2019, Dr. Boston retired as CEO of APEI and retired as APUS President in August 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. For four years from 2009 through 2012, APEI was ranked in Forbes' Top 10 list of America's Best Small Public Companies. During his tenure as president, APUS grew to over 85,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 100,000 alumni. While serving as APEI CEO and APUS President, Dr. Boston was a board member of APEI, APUS, Hondros College of Nursing, and Fidelis, Inc. Dr. Boston continues to serve as a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), a member of the Board of Overseers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, and as a member of the board of New Horizons Worldwide. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus. In August 2020, the Board of Trustees of APUS appointed him Trustee Emeritus. In November 2020, the Board of Trustees announced that the APUS School of Business would be renamed the Dr. Wallace E Boston School of Business in recognition of Dr. Boston's service to the university. Dr. Boston lives with his family in Austin, Texas.

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