Both as a mother of two young children and as a mathematician, I have a vested interest in the mathematics curriculum in our nation’s elementary schools. In addition, as an individual who works regularly with students planning to become teachers after graduation, I care deeply about how my students’ mathematical opinions will impact their future classes. For these reasons I wanted to review Math Power: How to Help Your Child Love Math Even If You Don’t. While this book is actually written for the less mathematically inclined audience, I still found interesting things in it. In particular, it makes many points that can help parents improve the educational experience of their children. Further, it helps those not actively involved in the field better understand the need for the curriculum changes implemented by the new common core.
Unfortunately, I found that one of the failings of this book was its narrow focus on the intended audience. I think this book is absolutely ideal for parents of children who have not yet entered elementary school and who are a bit math-phobic. If you are not as fearful of math, however, you might become frustrated by the author, who apologizes when discussing mathematics concepts, at times telling the reader that it’s okay to give up on this section if you find it too difficult. It seems that this is exactly the mentality that has caused our national tolerance of mathematical ignorance that the author is trying to prevent! In addition, in the section where the author suggests a timeline for when your child should learn various skills, the language implies that if your child is behind this proposed schedule it is much too late. Thus if you have a child already in school, you might feel helpless if it turns out you are far behind. I think it is important to emphasize that it is never too late. It is not hopeless if your child is behind; this is the time to begin taking action to improve their circumstances.
Once you get past this, however, the book makes several interesting points. To begin with, the author makes a convincing argument that the most difficult part of acquiring mathematics knowledge is the interpretation of language. The ability to communicate ideas begins with the language we use. As most instructors can attest, one of the most difficult parts of grading student work is trying to determine what the student means. The author noted that the skills she needed to reach her first graders were useful in her higher level college math courses, because she thought more carefully about the choice of language she used to explain things. Too often we educators assume the students understand us in class, when in fact after a careful discussion we can see that the presentation might not have been completely clear to the students, as we are making incorrect assumptions about prior knowledge.
This book also does a good job of empowering parents, giving them ideas on ways to improve the educational circumstances for their children. It suggests ways to intervene politely when you feel that a teacher is not serving your child’s mathematical needs. I think too often people feel helpless, as if they are unable to change the circumstances dealt to them.
In the end, the book discusses what the author finds are failures of the current education system and suggests ways to improve things. The book was originally written in the 1990s. I was surprised to see how relevant much of the discussion was to the educational reform we are seeing today in the new common core curriculum. For example, one of the key shifts in the common core mathematics curriculum is greater focus on fewer topics. In the book it was noted that the Third International Mathematics and Science Study concluded that “our schools are less focused than those in most countries and that we offer more math topics per year but with less depth.” (p. 136). So parents can see that the current curriculum changes are a reaction to a long term problem.
The author also notes that one of the key problems faced by elementary education teachers is the lack of required mathematics preparation in college. She argues that mathematical insecurity has lead to “drill and kill” assignments that teach students that the study of mathematics is a long series of exercises, each only slightly different from the previous one. As a result, students tend to give up easily on problems that really challenge them: effectively, they have been trained not to think when doing mathematics. To address this issue, recently the state of Illinois (and probably many other states) has created a new requirement for a more rigorous mathematical preparation for elementary education majors. At my university, this change has lead to the development of a three course mathematical sequence required for all students majoring in elementary education. Hopefully this change will help to improve the mathematics education of our elementary school students.
Finally there is a discussion on the hazards of standardized testing. The author argues that mathematics knowledge, as contrasted with arithmetic skills, cannot be accurately measured by multiple choice tests. She argues that free-response questions graded by human graders are required to accurately assess the mathematics skills of our students. To accompany the new common core curriculum, new forms of assessments have been developed. In the state of Illinois the PARCC test has been adopted, which from the samples on the website contains a variety of problems, including fill in the blank and short answers, which might potentially provide a better assessment solution. As testing begins to go away from standard multiple choice tests, which are often negatively shaping our schools curriculum, we can hope that elementary education will get back to focusing on necessary skills instead of teaching to a test.
I think this book makes a very timely and reasonable argument, supported by research, about what is wrong with our current education system and why changes are needed. It is a worthwhile read for anyone who has children who will be impacted by the new common core curriculum.
Ellen Ziliak is an Assistant Professor of mathematics at Benedictine University in Lisle IL. She is a mother of two young children. Her training is in the field of computational and geometric group theory. More recently she has become interested in ways to introduce undergraduate students to research in abstract algebra through applications.