We’re not doing enough to educate students about math

Published 12:04 am Saturday, June 18, 2016

By Tom Campbell

Special to the Salisbury Post

The checkout line was stalled and grew long. “What’s taking so long,” one impatient customer groused?

Word passed down the line that the computers were down, the customer at the front of the line didn’t have exact change and the beleaguered cashier wasn’t able to calculate the difference between the cost of goods and the cash submitted without the computer.

How well I remember my mother drilling me in addition and subtraction.

She made flash cards for the multiplication and division tables we were required to memorize. Even at this advanced age I can still recite those tables from memory.

Computers, smartphones and calculators appear to have replaced the need to know simple math skills, clearly evident when those devices aren’t available or fail. Too many can’t do basic math calculations, making it almost comical to watch the debate our lawmakers are waging over which advanced math curriculum high school students should employ.

At question is whether to continue the integrated math concepts of math 1, 2  and 3, developed as part of the Common Core Curriculum, or return to the traditional instruction of Algebra 1, Geometry and Algebra II. Many don’t like the Common Core, in part because they mistakenly think it a scheme concocted by Obama and Democrats.

In reality it resulted from state superintendents’ of education and governors who became increasingly alarmed at American students’ poor math performance.

Our legislature created the Academic Standards Review Commission with the implied intent of scrapping Common Core. After months of careful and thoughtful study that commission recommended leaving the English Common Core component as it was, while stating they saw some need for modification of math standards, but didn’t have specific recommendations for changes.

Now the legislature is trying to solve this vexing math problem and lawmakers are getting an earful from parents, students, teachers and others wanting them to choose the traditional or integrated solution.

There’s even the suggestion that they kick the can down the road and allow school systems to choose one or the other; perhaps even allowing them to employ both methods of instructions within the same system.

That addition looks like 1 + 1 = 3, absolutely the wrong answer. One or the other curriculum should be chosen.

Here’s what we know. Tomorrow’s jobs will require different solutions from our students.

We believe North Carolina could have done a better job of preparing and implementing the integrated math curriculum that is such a big departure from the traditional way of teaching math. It is hard for students to grasp new ways of solving problems but the basic concept of a more integrated, rather than just a linear approach, should serve them well in the future.

Too many math teachers now favor this approach after struggling to implement it. We trust their judgment.

One conclusion that must be reached, however, is that we are not doing a good enough job in lower grades teaching the fundamentals of addition, subtraction and especially multiplication and division.

Just as it is imperative that students learn to read so they can read to learn, without basic math skills any advanced curriculum will be difficult. If you don’t believe it just stand in the checkout line when the computers fail.

Tom Campbell is former assistant North Carolina State Treasurer and is creator/host of NC SPIN, a weekly statewide television discussion of NC issues.