Policymakers Shouldn’t Shy Away from Deeper Math Understanding


Kentucky state Representative Regina Bunch, who will chair the House Budget Review Subcommittee on Primary and Secondary Education and Workforce Development, says the state is getting rid of its current college- and career-ready education standards, the Kentucky News Journal reports.

Questions about the learning goals began to arise, the article suggests, after parents learned that children were not required to “memorize multiplication and simple division tables, and required to turn simple math into a complex process.”

Math instruction has changed as states implement higher academic expectations. But the idea that students no longer are required to master basic functions or that simple math concepts have become complicated and burdensome is untrue. While these new approaches may be foreign to many parents, they are helping students build fluency with numbers and math operations.

As we have written before, math instruction has shifted to focus more on developing conceptual understanding beginning at early grades in order to build the foundations students need to succeed in high level content. Part of that is encouraging students to use multiple problem-solving techniques, which build numbers fluency.

But, make no mistake, children are still learning traditional techniques as well, like memorizing multiplication tables and standard algorithms. “Students are expected to know their sums and products from memory and to be fluent with the standard algorithm for each of the four basic operations (the traditional ‘carry’ method, in the case of addition),” math expert Jason Zimba wrote last year.

Much of the math instruction older generations grew up under is no longer relevant, putting greater importance on “numbers sense,” Stanford mathematician Keith Devlin wrote this week. “What is required today is a sufficiently deep understanding of all those procedures, and the underlying concepts they are built on.”

While unfamiliar to many parents who grew up under old models of instruction, states’ focus on conceptual understanding is working to improve student achievement. Last year third-graders made some of the biggest proficiency improvements in math, which suggest these new approaches are helping to bolster fundamental math skills.

“Along with the traditional methods you and I learned in school, these young students were learning multiple approaches to a simple problem, allowing them to grasp the underlying concepts by using the method that worked best for them,” explains Adam Ezring. “Math experts agree that this approach is key to getting kids more comfortable with math, so as they grow up, they are ready to tackle more difficult concepts.”

As higher standards begin to take root in classrooms policymakers should resist calls  to turn back. Fortunately, as educators and administrators engage families, many are beginning to see the value of setting expectations high. They realize by embracing change they are better preparing their children to succeed in college and to lead in a competitive economy.