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It’s Bigger than the Common Core. It’s about Mathematical Literacy!

Posted by Cindy Bryant

Jun 19, 2013 1:18:00 PM

There continues to be unrest regarding the adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), and the plunge in state test scores seems to confirm some of these feelings. For numerous reasons, various opponents of the CCSS have banded together in some states to plead with political leaders to pass mandates that would “outlaw” the CCSS.

There’s concern that the federal government will become more involved with the CCSS in the future and implement unreasonable expectations for students, or fear that local districts will lose their autonomy. Some oppose the CCSS because of the cost of implementing assessments aligned to the standards or the emphasis on the assessments, and consequences for teachers whose students don’t perform well on the assessments, while others hold the belief that the CCSS just won’t make any difference in the achievement of students.

And, in reality, some of these are valid and true arguments. After all, there are no guarantees that quality standards will ensure that all students will learn and perform at a higher level, and quality assessments are expensive to implement. However, it’s bigger than the CCSS. So let’s just step away from the CCSS for a moment.

Ask the bigger question: What mathematics skills do students need to have, and what mathematics content do they need to know in order to be mathematically literate? Looking at research and studies that identify U.S. students’ weaknesses might serve us well in answering this question.

According to Phillip (2007), 78% of adults cannot explain how to compute the interest paid on a loan, 71% cannot calculate miles per gallon on a trip, and 58% cannot calculate a 10% tip for a bill at a restaurant. Research also indicates that students and adults have difficulties with fractions (e.g., Hecht, Vagi, & Torgeson, 2007; Mazzocco & Devlin, 2008).

International comparisons show U.S. students lagging behind in mathematics in terms of the level expected of an international leader (TIMSS).i The average math achievement level is low on an international basis. By 8th grade, nearly 50% of all students tested in South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan reached “advanced” while only 7% of American test-takers did.ii

In addition there continues to be a growing demand for remedial mathematics education among arriving students in four-year colleges and community colleges across the nation (Business Higher Education Forum, 2005). All of these facts point not only to a weakness in the preparation of students for education and training beyond high school, but also indicate widespread lack of mathematically literatacy among our students.

Mathematical literacy can only be achieved through a well-balanced mathematics program that provides students the opportunity to do, understand, and apply mathematics as they:

  • Develop problem solving skills by utilizing a variety of problem solving strategies

  • Develop conceptual understanding by not just doing the math (i.e., following a procedure) but knowing the math--understanding math concepts, operations and relationships

For example, students who understand the relationship between multiplying a number by 0.5 and the resulting number, know that the resulting number is always half of the original number.

  • Develop procedural fluency by carrying out procedures flexibly, accurately, efficiently, and appropriately

For far too long students have watched their teachers do the mathematics. Computational fluency or arithmetic has often been the primary focus of mathematics programs. But mathematical literacy can only be achieved by students being actively engaged in mathematics so they can develop understanding and mathematical thinking while applying their learning to solve problems.
iii Teachers should encourage students to talk and write about mathematics, model mathematical situations, and explore mathematical ideas, while using their computational skills to aid in learning deeper mathematics. 

Mathematics needs to be “the new literacy” (Schoenfeld, 1995). It should no longer be accepted that a rigorous mathematics education is for the few who will be engineers or scientists, but rather an essential educational foundation for all students in obtaining mathematical literacy.

  Our Solution to Math Illiteracy

Principles and Standards for School Mathematics: National Council of Teachers of Mathematics., 2000.

v Foundations for Success: The Final Report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel. U.S. Department of Education: Washington, DC., 2008

Cindy Bryant, LearnBop's Director of Learning, will be leading a webinar on this topic THIS FRIDAY!

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Topics: Differentiating Instruction, Implementing the Common Core, Resources, Teaching & Learning

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