When I was in high school in the Bronx during the 1960s, they didn’t let us use calculators on tests – because they hadn’t invented them yet.
I actually learned math in middle school at JHS 82 when my friends and I calculated baseball batting averages and earned run averages for pitchers during lunch. In those days newspapers only published the league leaders on weekdays, so we did the calculations for everyone on the Yankees and Mets, our favorite teams. Today, when you watch a ball game on television, all sorts of statistics that I never heard of as a kid are recalculated instantaneously. Basically, when a hitter is going well, batting, slugging, and on base percentages should go up, and when a pitcher is in a groove their earned run average should go down.
Today’s kids have calculators and computers with unimaginable computational power and speed. They just have to punch in numbers. As an aging dinosaur, I like to balance my checkbook without help to keep my mind sharp, but some days I don’t bother and let Excel work the numbers. I have used algebra and geometry for different projects, but I probably could have gotten by in life with very rudimentary math skills. I’ve never used trigonometry or calculus since I left high school.
So why do kids need to study math?
This is an important question because the latest report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that as a result of COVID school interruptions math scores fell for 4th and 8th graders in nearly every state and demographic group, and in some states scores they fell precipitously. Only 36% of fourth graders and 26% of eighth graders were rated proficient in math. In New York the scores were significantly worse for 4th graders, only 28% of students rated proficient, and slightly better than the national average for 8th graders. These were the lowest scores for New York students since the federal testing started in 1998.
More vulnerable students dropped even further behind their peers. A survey included with the test found that only half of fourth graders who were low performing in math had regular access to a computer during the 2020-21 school year and a third reported that they did not have a quiet place to do school work. Black and Latino students, who already scored lower than white and Asian students on previous exams, experienced the sharpest COVID related declines. The test results and survey hint that in the near future we may see a sharp increase in high school dropouts and a greater opportunity gap.
Reading scores also declined but reading performance is easier to bounce back. Math is sequential so if a student doesn’t learn the basics they can’t perform increasingly complex operations. During the 2021-2022 school year, the federal government provided over $120 billion, about $2,400 per student, to address the COVID decline, but federal funding for remediation expires in 2024 and a highly partisan Congress may not allocate the billions of dollars that are still required.
So why do kids need to study math if technology can do the calculations for us?
In New York State, Mathematics Learning Standards stress that the goal is for students to be able to make sense of problems and persevere in solving them; reason abstractly and quantitatively; construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others; and model with mathematics. Computational skills, also called numeracy, are important because to do these things students have to be comfortable with numbers and be able to “read” math. But broader “thinking skills” that transfer over to other areas of school and life are most important.
Studying math, besides learning how to calculate, students learn to think logically, how to identify and state a problem clearly, how to plan, how to decide on appropriate strategies to find solutions to a problem, and how to reach conclusions based on evidence, in this case, numbers. In addition, math helps us keep score even when calculators are unavailable. With math we measure money, useful when making or checking pay and shopping, time, and distance. We use math when cooking and baking, balancing a checkbook, or planning or building home improvements. When you know math, you can tell when a bill is correct and you are not dependent on everyone else.
Some people are probably better off when kids can’t do the math. It is easier to cheat them. You can pay them less and bill them more. They can’t understand why climate change and rising sea levels are such a threat or why Republican claims that the 2020 election was stolen are ridiculous.
Some people are probably better off when kids can’t do the math, but their lives and our society as a whole is much worse off.
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