Our kids can’t do the math


When I was in high school in the Bronx in the 1960s, they didn’t let us use calculators on tests. They hadn’t invented them yet.
I actually learned math in middle school, when my friends and I calculated baseball batting averages and pitchers’ earned run averages. In those days, newspapers only published the stats for the league leaders, so we did the calculations for everyone else on the Yankees and Mets. Today, when you watch a game on TV, all sorts of statistics that I never heard of as a kid are recalculated instantaneously.
Likewise, kids today have devices with unimaginable computational power and speed. They just punch in the numbers. As an aging dinosaur, I like to balance my checkbook without help to keep my mind sharp, but some days I don’t bother, and I let Excel work the numbers. I’ve used algebra and geometry for different projects, but I probably could have gotten by in life with very rudimentary math skills. I haven’t used trigonometry or calculus since I left high school.
So why do kids need to study math? This is an important question, because the latest report from the National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that as a result of pandemic-related school interruptions, fourth- and eight-graders’ math scores in standardized tests fell in nearly every state and demographic group, and in some states they fell precipitously. Only 36 percent of fourth-graders and 26 percent of eighth-graders were rated proficient in math. In New York, the scores were significantly worse for fourth-graders, with only 28 percent of students rated proficient, and slightly better than the national average for eighth-graders. These were the lowest percentages for New York students since the federal testing started in 1998.
More vulnerable students dropped even further behind their peers. A survey included with the test found that only half of low-performing fourth-graders had regular access to computers during the 2020-21 school year, and a third reported that they didn’t have a quiet place to do school work. Black and Latino students, who already scored lower than white and Asian students on previous exams, experienced the sharpest Covid-related declines. The test results and survey hint that in the near future, we may see a sharp increase in high school dropouts and a greater opportunity gap.

Reading scores also declined, but it’s easier for students to bounce back when it comes to reading performance. Math is sequential, so if students don’t learn the basics, they can’t perform increasingly complex operations. During the 2021-22 school year, the federal government provided over $120 billion, about $2,400 per student, to address the Covid decline, but federal funding for remediation expires in 2024, and a highly partisan Congress may not allocate the billions more dollars that are still needed.
But again, why do kids need to study math if technology can do the calculations for us?
In New York state, Mathematics Learning Standards stress that the goal is for students to be able to make sense of problems and persevere in solving them; to reason abstractly and quantitatively; to construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others; and to model with mathematics. Computational skills, also called numeracy, are important because to do these things, students have to be comfortable with numbers and be able to “read” math.
But broader “thinking skills” that transfer to other areas of school and life are most important. Studying math, besides learning how to calculate, students learn to think logically, how to identify and state a problem clearly, how to plan, how to decide on appropriate strategies to find solutions to a problem, and how to reach conclusions based on evidence — in this case, numbers. And math helps us keep score even when calculators are unavailable. With math we measure money, time and distance. We use it when cooking, balancing a checkbook, determining whether a bill is correct or planning home improvements.
Some people are probably better off when kids can’t do math. It’s easier to cheat them. You can pay them less and bill them more. They can’t understand why climate change and rising sea levels are such a threat, or why Republican claims that the 2020 election was stolen are ridiculous. That only makes it clearer that, if the problem persists, the lives of those kids, and our society as a whole, will be much worse off.

Dr. Alan Singer is a professor of teaching, learning and technology and the director of social studies education programs at Hofstra University. He is a former New York City high school social studies teacher and editor of Social Science Docket, a joint publication of the New York and New Jersey Councils for the Social Studies. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/AlanJSinger1.