Math Problem: Lack of Skills Has Effects in Region, Country.

One parent came because he could barely help his daughter with her 8th-grade homework. Another because math frightened her. And another because algebraic equations were as foreign as Chinese symbols.

In the cafeteria of Fall Mountain Regional High School earlier this year, parents and business owners met to learn about new math standards their students face.

During a series of sample problems, one woman joked that it would take her all night to solve one of the questions, a reasoning problem for 5th-graders.

Everyone laughed with her.

But why is it funny? Since when is it OK to be bad at math?

Those at the Fall Mountain gathering aren’t alone. Somewhere along the road, it’s become socially acceptable for Americans to admit their lack of math skills, shrug and chuckle about it.

Meanwhile, there’s a shortage of job applicants with the math wits to fill openings in certain industries. In New Hampshire, a 2010 survey of manufacturers found that more than 40 percent of employers said job applicants lacked basic math skills.

The U.S. routinely ranks below other developed countries on international indexes of math skills.

And roughly one in five adults in the U.S. lacks the math competence expected of a middle-schooler, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That means they have trouble with tasks like doubling the measurements in recipes and calculating the savings on a 15 percent sale.

But perhaps the biggest challenge, teachers say, is that the way Americans view math can cause a self-fulfilling cycle for many students, where they don’t think they can achieve — and in many cases they don’t see the need to achieve — a deep mathematical understanding.

Experts say that’s a problem for which there’s no easy answer — but we should start by looking at ourselves.

Studies show that the number skills children develop at an early age follow a student through his or her education, and so even early experiences with math need to be positive ones.

Yet too few elementary school educators go into teaching for a love a math, said Beverly J. Ferrucci, mathematics professor at Keene State College. Some of those teachers may skip over a math lesson they’re not fond of, or spend an hour on reading while cramming math into a 30-minute lesson.

They don’t see the beauty in math and so they can’t pass that on to their students,” she said.

When elementary teachers aren’t confident in their math skills, students pick up on that, Keene State sophomore Ryleigh Dimattei said. And then math becomes this scary, unapproachable thing. That’s the first part that needs to change if the goal is to get more students to like math, she said.

Dimattei just finished a geometry course Ferrucci teaches that aims to train math specialists for elementary schools, something that’s growing more common, Ferrucci said.

Teachers say whether kids enjoy math usually comes down to a pretty simple determination: If they can see how it relates to their world, they appreciate it, and if they’ve had success, then they like it.

Yet success in the subject is too narrowly defined by many teachers, parents and students, said Jesslyn Mullett, a math teacher at Marlborough School.

When all the emphasis is put on finding the right answer, messing up can be so intimidating for students that they’d rather not try to solve the problem at all, she said.

Instead, being good at math means being able to look at a situation, determine the problem, and come up with strategies to solve the problem based on what you have to work with.

If teachers and parents attributed students’ success to their hard work and attempts to find creative ways to solve problems, more students might feel successful, said Mullett, whose background is in psychology and statistics.

Just tweaking the language that we use around math can help change the way students look at and feel about the subject, she said.

Students’ attitudes toward math and their math achievement tend to reinforce each other, according to the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study, an international assessment of math skills in 4th- and 8th-graders. That means that students who feel good about math are the same students who tend to do well at the subject.

So Mullett starts off her classes by telling students that we’re all “math people.” We wouldn’t be able to function without an understanding of numbers, she said. We’d walk into walls, and we wouldn’t be able to make music, much less appreciate it.

We’re all inherently mathematical because our minds inherently look for patterns,” she said. “Don’t tell me you’re not a math person because we all are. You just may not like math yet.”

Students in Mullett’s 7th-grade algebra class are learning how to balance and solve equations. She introduced the topic with physical items, Legos and building blocks, so students could actually see what a balanced equation looked like.

On Thursday, students broke into groups to use white boards and iPads to solve equations by using pictures and symbols.

They work at their own pace, and call over one of the teachers if they get stuck.

Mullett, Staci Willbarger, a paraprofessional, and Alex Gorokhov, a permanent substitute who co-teaches with Mullett, rotate among the groups, prompting the students to work through the problems step-by-step.

The hands-on activities help the teachers see exactly where the students struggle and where they have strengths, Mullett said.

She tries to give students things they can make meaning out of, math problems they can relate to their world. For example, the school is building garden beds, so math students have mapped out the landscaping using measuring and geometry skills.

The Common Core State Standards, a set of grade-level expectations adopted in New Hampshire and 44 other states, encourage more hands-on, project-based learning.

But by the time students reach high school, they are so conditioned to a more cut-and-dry mentality, where they only want to apply a memorized equation and calculate the answer, that there’s a lot of push-back from students on open-ended questions, said Bernadette M. Kuhn, a math teacher at Monadock Regional High School.

Most of the seven juniors and seniors in Kuhn’s algebra II class say they don’t dislike math, but they don’t think they’re good at it, either.

As teenagers, many students have spent years building up these walls and excuses for why they can’t do math. Eventually, that wall becomes more of a problem than their actual math skills, Kuhn said.

Senior Jared D. Stephenson said many students he knows don’t think they’ll need what they learn in math class when they graduate high school. So most of them, the 17-year-old included, only care about getting the grade they need to graduate.

But people eventually realize after they leave school that they need math for all kinds of jobs, said Virginia I. Herrick, manager of the Keene office of N.H. Employment Security.

Whether it’s working as a landscaper, a cashier or a machinist, basic math of some type shows up every day, and employers need new hires to be able to handle that, she said.

In New Hampshire, jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, the so-called STEM fields, are expected to grow by 17.3 percent by 2020, compared with job growth of 10.4 percent for the state as a whole, according to an April report from the state’s Economic and Labor Market Information Bureau.

More locally, one of the biggest complaints in talking with manufacturing companies, which represent roughly 15 percent of the economy in Cheshire County, is weak math skills, said Susan B. Newcomer, workforce coordinator for the Greater Keene Chamber of Commerce.

In an effort to help combat that problem, some companies, such as Whelen Engineering in Charlestown, are starting to offer internships and to design curriculum for high school students.

Kuhn concedes that her students may not use exponential polynomials, the class’s current topic, when they leave high school. But as a math teacher, her goal is to help students build skills to logically think through a problem, she said.

Stephenson and his classmate, junior Wyatt A. Fabrinski, are skeptical, though. They don’t buy into the philosophy that math is more about learning effective strategies and reasoning than it is about finding the right answer.

“(Students) are in such a society now where if they don’t understand it immediately, they won’t give themselves the time to get it,” Kuhn said.

Ferrucci, the Keene State professor, lived in Singapore for two years during a sabbatical. The country consistently scores at the top of international math tests.

The U.S., on the other hand, ranked 11th in 4th-grade math achievement and ninth in 8th-grade math achievement in the 2011 Trends in Math and Sciences Study assessment.

People in Singapore look at math differently, Ferrucci said. They don’t allow their students to make excuses about why they can’t get it, and they see math as something everyone needs, something everyone can do.

That’s the message Keene State assistant professor Dick Jardine likes to send home with students in his applied mathematics, statistics and differential equations classes. Jardine, a runner, said he knows he could never run a marathon in two hours and 10 minutes, a nearly world-record pace. But if he trains, he knows he can finish one.

“It’s the same with math,” he said. “Everyone can do it at some level.”

Jardine thinks part of the solution to training a math-literate society is in improving the training available to aspiring math teachers. Students need teachers who are creative in their approach to tying math to real-world problems, and who don’t buy into the myth that some students are simply able to understand math, while others aren’t.

Winchester School District Superintendent James M. Lewis has another suggestion: Stop making excuses. Society is too forgiving in its math expectations, and that means adults and children alike are let off the hook too easily.

“Math can be difficult,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.”


By Kaitlin Mulhere

Source: The Keene Sentinel –