Follow-up on Mathematics. “We’re Teaching K-12 Math All Wrong.”

Learning Maths

In a recent article we wrote that tens of thousands of students in Florida who graduate from high school aren’t ready for college. Only 34 percent of the 190,853 SAT Florida test takers in the Class of 2019 were considered ready for a college-level freshman math course.

We also wrote about how most of the School District of Indian River County (SDIRC) Algebra 1 end-of-course exams for all Florida counties this past spring were below average and the District’s math progression is not as strong as it should be.

For all middle school passers SDIRC was ninth from the last.

SDIRC Black middle school passers was next to last for eighth grade. Black students are significantly underrepresented in Indian River County.

This data is disconcerting for those who plan on majoring in a STEAM field (science, technology, engineering, arts or math).  Expectations will be higher because math skills will be more critical to their college courses and future career.

Related article on STEAM:

Most colleges will require you to have taken four years of math in high school, sometimes including pre-calculus and calculus.  Graduating seniors will be competing for college offers with many other smart STEAM people, so they will want to help themselves stand out by taking rigorous math classes that are offered at a high level.

But as many as 60 percent of all college students who intend to study a STEAM subject end up transferring out according to research from the University of California, Los Angeles. wrote that “In an era when politicians and educators are beside themselves with worry over American students’ lagging math and science scores compared to the whiz kids of Shanghai and Japan, this attrition trend so troubles experts it has spawned an entire field of research on ‘STEAM drop-out,’ citing reasons from gender and race to GPAs and peer relationships.


One theory for the STEAM exodus is that American students aren’t getting a good foundation in math — a necessary skill in many scientific and technical curricula. After all, about a third of American high school seniors don’t score proficient in math.”

Perhaps the reason is that the math curriculum in the foundational years is shallow and ineffective, instead of going for depth of understanding, rigor of coursework, and applications. Are math courses providing the indispensable building blocks upon which there is a solid foundation that leads to calculus?  Missing blocks has caused the foundation for our students to weaken and skipping or accelerating through these courses is having real implications for opportunities in high school and beyond.

Concepts are memorized and forgotten or never learned.  This is why the overall enrollment and success in high level math courses is low and why students are struggling with IB and AP exams, the ACT and SAT tests, as well as the University ALEKS Math Placement exam.

Data from the 13 million students who took PISA tests showed that the lowest achieving students worldwide were those who used a memorization strategy – those who thought of math as a set of methods to remember and who approached math by trying to memorize steps.

Richard Rusczyk, a former Math Olympiad winner and the founder of the online math program Art of Problem Solving,  is part of a group of math educators who see the mystery of the disappearing STEAM major from a different angle. It’s not that kids aren’t getting enough math, they say, but that we’re teaching K-12 math all wrong.



Richard Rusczyk

Rusczyk’s insight is based on a phenomenon he witnessed firsthand when he arrived at Princeton University and began studying math alongside kids who had attended the most prestigious high schools in the country. “These were kids who had never gotten anything but 95s and 100s on their tests and suddenly they were struggling and were getting 62s on tests and they decided they weren’t any good [at math],” he explains.

“Students learn math best when they approach the subject as something they enjoy. Speed pressure, timed testing and blind memorization pose high hurdles in the pursuit of math,” according to Jo Boaler, professor of mathematics education  at Stanford Graduate School of Education and lead author on a new working paper called “Fluency Without Fear.”

“Math fluency is often misinterpreted, with an over-emphasis on speed and memorization,” she said. “I work with a lot of mathematicians, and one thing I notice about them is that they are not particularly fast with numbers; in fact, some of them are rather slow. This is not a bad thing; they are slow because they think deeply and carefully about mathematics.”

She quotes the famous French mathematician, Laurent Schwartz. He wrote in his autobiography that he often felt stupid in school, as he was one of the slowest math thinkers in class.

Math anxiety and fear play a big role in students dropping out of mathematics,” said Boaler.

Don't like math

“When we emphasize memorization and testing in the name of fluency we are harming children, we are risking the future of our ever-quantitative society and we are threatening the discipline of mathematics,” she said. “We have the research knowledge we need to change this and to enable all children to be powerful mathematics learners. Now is the time to use it.

While research shows that knowledge of math facts is important, Boaler said the best way for students to know math facts is by using them regularly and developing understanding of numerical relations. Memorization, speed and test pressure can be damaging, she added.

Mathematics is a broad and multidimensional subject. Real mathematics is about inquiry, communication, connections, and visual ideas. We don’t need students to calculate quickly in math. We need students who can ask good questions, map out pathways, reason about complex solutions, set up models and communicate in different forms.

The highest achieving students were those who thought of math as a set of connected, big ideas.”



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