I appreciate a column in yesterday’s News and Observer, “Say No to Math Wars,” written by Paola Sztajn, a professor of elementary education at N.C State University. She reminds us that we already fought this particular math war in the 1990’s, although I recall that we skirmished 40 years before that. Being old has its advantages…. What math war is this? The battle between proficiency/ fluency and a deeper understanding of math concepts.
It’s easier to measure fluency, for sure. How many math problems can a student solve per minute? Got it. It’s harder to determine whether kids grasp concepts because in early elementary grades, they can often memorize enough processes to fake it. Hence, we get the math disabled kids showing up in 3rd and 4th grade with a staggering number of gaps and misconceptions.
I agree with Sztajn that understanding should precede fluency. I agree that we don’t need to beat this dead horse any longer. On the other hand-and you knew that was coming, right?- we need better teacher education so that kids do better with the deeper understanding part. We also need deep curricula but some reasonable way to shorten its breadth. Right now, classes are racing through new topics at a rate that leaves our weakest kids far behind. Research tells us that solid math instruction is time-consuming. For kids with dyscalculia or those at risk of math failure, every lesson that sails over their heads is another nail in their math coffin. That sounds dramatic and believe me, the cost of missing lessons is exponential, not additive.