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Why Do So Many Students Have Math Learning Gaps?

In a previous post about learning gaps, I expressed that the key to math intervention is recognizing the need to find students' gaps. All students come to middle school math with at least one puzzle piece missing, but some students have so many missing pieces that it becomes impossible to be successful in math.

The blame for these gaps tends to get placed in two ways:

1. Elementary teachers are incompetent in math, and, because of this, they have not adequately prepared their students for higher math.

2. The students are lazy and do not try.

Let's address these two issues before I present my understanding of math learning gaps.

1. Is it true that many elementary teachers are not the best at math? Absolutely! I have known truly fabulous, outstanding teachers who still struggle with multiplication and add with their fingers. And in fact, elementary education is a major of choice for them, because of its lack of rigorous math requirements. Is this the issue? Partly. While many elementary teachers may not be the greatest at math, most still use highly effective teaching strategies, such as the use of hands-on manipulatives, math journaling, and an emphasis on number sense. What does happen, though, is they sometimes teach students "tricks" that later bind them into very rudimentary understandings. Because these tricks work, the students are reluctant to abandon them, even when it is necessary for them to do so.

2. Are the students lazy? I have addressed this issue before, but it is such a prevailing myth, that it should be addressed again. Students do not do math, because they can't do math! I have seen very, very few lazy students - students, who, when given appropriate work, significant encouragement, and adequate support, still won't try.

So, then, if it is not the elementary teacher's fault, and it is not the students' laziness, what is the problem? Why do so many students have these learning gaps?

1. Chronic absenteeism - Many students who fail math miss a significant amount of school. Because math is hierarchical, building upon itself, students who miss only a few days struggle to catch up.

2. Lack of parental math ability - Many parents are unable to help their student at home. Sometimes, a student needs only a few minutes of instruction to complete an assignment. Since their parents can't help them, they have yet another incomplete assignment.

3. ADHD - An overwhelming number of failing students have ADHD. It is difficult for these students to focus, and hands-on manipulatives often aggravate their ADHD. Many teachers are ill-equipped to handle these students, and so they end up focusing on managing behavior, rather than teaching math.

4. Dyslexia - The nation is in a push to increase math rigor, which often translates into "word problems." Increasingly, state assessments, and thus homework assignments, are filled with word problems. Students with dyslexia tend to struggle with many critical math aspects, which are compounded with the addition of written words.

5. Lack of early intervention - The last two decades have seen a significant emphasis on early intervention in literacy. Because of this, very few students enter secondary education without a strong reading foundation. Early math intervention, however, is just entering education, and it will take time before those results are seen in the upper grades.

6. Little flexibility in math curriculums - Teachers typically have a set scope and sequence, with very little flexibility. There are so many new objectives to cover, so there is no time to reteach prior skills.

7. American belief in inherent math ability - The majority of Americans believe that people are born good at math, or conversely, born bad at math. We do not see math ability as an outcome of hard work. Students hear their parents say, "I was not good at math either. She gets this from me." Students believe they are no good, so they stop trying. They do not believe they can ever be good at math.


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