On My Soapbox About Elementary Math

I’m still digesting and processing all the great learning I had at NCTM San Diego 2019! It is truly awesome to think of all the knowledge and brainpower I was surrounded by in San Diego.

With that said, there is still something that doesn’t sit well with me, from a few years ago, that was reiterated at this conference. Steve Leinwand told a large group of coaches in a workshop I attended a couple of years ago that a mediocre K-5 education can be overcome, but 6th grade is where math really takes off. Linda Gojak echoed that in her presentation, but added that she thinks 5th grade is really that important turning point. In talking with coaches at different elementary school districts, I’m learning that various school districts de-emphasize the importance of math at K-5.

It just doesn’t sit well with me.

At the same time you’ll hear that algebra is the “gateway to college access” (WestEd, 2015), and that students who fail Algebra 1 the first time are unlikely to pass it the second time. Performing just slightly above the proficient line on the CST’s in 6th grade offered only a 50/50 chance of passing Algebra. I’m looking for similar data from SBAC assessments but haven’t seen an updated version yet. WestEd details a summer intervention between 6th and 7th grade as a support, acknowledging the limitations of such a short time frame.

But I still don’t understand! If a proficient (albeit barely) performance on our state standardized assessments only gives you a 50/50 chance at success in algebra, then why aren’t we concerned about the mathematics education of K-6? Isn’t this a huge equity issue? Who gets access to algebra, and thus college?

They don’t start learning mathematics in 6th grade. It starts in kindergarten. We can’t *assume* it started before that. Of course, in the ideal world the babies were counting everything in sight with their parents, comparing more and less, starting to subitize small quantities, etc. Their early numeracy trajectories could have started well before kindergarten. But for others, it didn’t. The opportunity gap has begun before they even stepped into their brightly colored kinder room.

I can’t accept that the choice of college is already limited upon walking through the kinder door. We have to do better than that. However, our elementary teachers are charged with the critical goal of teaching children how to read – no easy task by any stretch of the imagination. It’s hard work, stressful, and compounded by a society that doesn’t value elementary education – as demonstrated by the “teacher pay penalty” (EPI, 2018).

Is this why we give K-5 the “pass” on mediocrity in math? We just can’t burden elementary anymore?

I can’t accept that either. In the meantime, our students suffer and the opportunity gap widens. We know what is working from other countries – here is a very partial list (NCEE, n.d.):

  • Longer school days
  • Preschool
  • Early childhood focus on literacy AND numeracy
  • Ongoing teacher development and collaboration

It’s not a secret. In order to compete globally, we have to provide a stellar education from Pre-K through 12th grade. Even with the limited amount of time in American school days (this really has to be changed but it is a subject for a different day), we can’t expect even a preschool teacher to spend the entirety of every day on literacy. Early numeracy, conceptual understanding, basic fluency, and positive math interactions are critical to their secondary education. We cannot wait to focus on 6th grade – at that time they have had 6 prior years of math “mediocrity” that has potentially established math anxiety, math hatred, or math avoidance. Undoing 6 years of learning is too tall a task for a summer intervention.

Instead of accepting mediocrity, let’s invite success. The opportunity gap has already started before they walked through that kinder door. We must change that math narrative into one where the algebra gate is readily open to all, due to their stellar K-5 preparation.