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Tech + Grit = Math Success

Mathematics scores are trending upward with the help of digital resources.
By Wayne D’Orio

For students today, math is too often a four-letter word, to be avoided at all costs. We’ve seen the numbers and heard the reports—math education is a major weakness for today’s children, we aren’t creating enough students with the right skills to fill high-paying STEM jobs, and our students are falling significantly behind compared to other countries.

Yet amid all the gloom and doom, a panel of five experts gathered recently at Discovery Education headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland, to discuss ways to improve math education, re-energize students and teachers, and end what many think has become a pattern of declining math performance.

“We’re on the cusp of tremendous opportunity,” said Mark Edwards, superintendent of Mooresville Graded School District, in North Carolina. “We recognize our deficiency and can use digital resources to help students.”

Francis “Skip” Fennell, professor of education at McDaniel College, in Westminster, Maryland, argued that perception is one of math’s biggest problems. Test scores on the most recent Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study bear him out. In 2011, fourth-grade U.S. students scored 12 points higher than in 2007, although eighth-grade students’ scores were flat. Fourth graders ranked behind just eight countries, while placing ahead of 42 education systems around the world. For eighth graders, 11 countries placed higher than U.S students, while 32 placed below. Math achievement can be improved, but students are making progress, said Fennell.

Actor and best-selling author Danica McKellar agreed with Fennell. McKellar writes books to help encourage girls to pursue math, such as 2008’s Kiss My Math: Showing Pre-Algebra Who’s Boss. At book signings, she has talked with girls who put down their math achievement, only to reveal that they are getting good grades. It’s a vicious cycle, says McKellar: “For most parents, math brings back bad memories.” We need to tell students that “doing math is like going to the gym for your brain,” she added.

Other panelists included Michele Weslander-Quaid, Google’s chief innovation evangelist and Portia Wu, assistant secretary of employment and training administration at the U.S. Department of Labor. The event was held in conjunction with Discovery Education’s new Math Techbook, a digital textbook designed to encourage inquiry-based learning.

To really turn the tide, said Edwards, schools that are used to celebrating success have to celebrate progress as well, especially by struggling students. In Mooresville, he added, where test scores are among the highest in North Carolina, there is “a relentless belief in every child.”

“We evaluate children for their potential,” said Edwards. “We have math nights in all of our elementary schools to teach parents about math. There’s a constancy of reaching out. This is not a short-term effort.”

Weslander-Quaid said teachers’ reactions to mistakes could deter students. Mistakes should be corrected but they should not be viewed as proof that a student can’t succeed, she added. “In the tech world, if you’re not failing sometimes, you’re not pushing hard enough.”

Wu previewed the upcoming job market, saying that more than 1 million STEM jobs will be created in the next decade. STEM jobs currently pay twice as much as median wages, she added, yet there are not enough qualified workers to fill these spots.

To watch the entire Discovery Education event, visit www.discoveryeducation.com

Image: Courtesy of Discovery Education

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