# Solving America’s Math Challenge

**By Scott O’Connell**

It’s a capitulation that’s been made by countless right-brained people throughout history: “Maybe I’m just not good at math.”

“Hokum,” says Deborah DeBenedictis, director of the Success Centers in Weston and Wayland, Mass., which tutors students in math and reading. She believes any student can learn math given the right support. And plenty of other educators agree.

“Teaching children well is never easy,” said Anna Charny, director of the MetroWest School of Mathematics in Framingham, Mass. “I do not believe math is fundamentally more difficult to teach than other subjects.”

But statistics show that plenty of students are struggling. The latest trends in the International Mathematics and Science Study, a global assessment administered every four years, revealed American students ranked below eight other countries in math in 2007, the most recent year for which data is available.

“There’s room for improvement,” said Massachusetts Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester. “I’m concerned that too many students are not getting the grounding they need (in the subject).”

Those students could risk missing out on some of the more well-paying careers in the workforce, particularly as jobs in the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — continue to take up a large portion of the economy.

Tom Gaudette, principal academic evangelist at MathWorks in Natick, Mass., said “the bar is set pretty high” for applicants hoping to land a tech job at the mathematical computing software development company, for example.

Some educators believe the root of the problem lies in the early grades, where schools aren’t teaching enough of the basics. Once those students move on to higher grades and more challenging math concepts, they could be more likely to tune out.

**“The problem is a lot of kids aren’t getting those building blocks,” said DeBenedictis. Without that base, she added, those students can “feel very shaky” taking on more conceptual math problems.**

Possibly contributing to that problem is the difficulty schools have trying to find effective math teachers, particularly at the elementary school level. There are a lot of good teachers, and a lot of good mathematicians, but not many people who are both, said Jay Sweeney, chairman of the mathematics department at the Advanced Math & Science Academy Charter School in Marlborough, Mass.

“You need a combination of the two,” he said. “But many of those people don’t choose to go into teaching — they go into other industries.”

Charny said the U.S., from the federal down to the local level, may need to consider pursuing more challenging math standards for students as well as teachers. In a recent comparison of the standards here to those in Singapore and Russia — both of which ranked higher on the 2007 TIMMS — she said it appears “that in many areas, we are behind by at least a year or two.”

“It seems that there is a clear need for a more ambitious curriculum — and more rigorous assessment of teachers and student performance,” Charny said.

Chester said the state’s new Common Core curriculum has made many changes to math education standards already, such as putting more emphasis on teaching proportional reasoning and fractions.

“Too often, curriculum in those areas have not been as deliberately and carefully sequenced as they should be,” he said.

**Ultimately, though, “math is math,” said Sweeney. “Nothing’s changed about it.”**

**“So much of what we’re talking about is the basics,” said DeBenedictis. “Give (students) support, and math is really much easier to supplement than writing, for example.”**

What’s important, educators agree, is finding ways to make the subject interesting to students and rewarding for them to master. Sweeney said he often tries to incorporate real-life math problems — figuring out electrical circuits, for example — so that students will “see firsthand how (math) is done and how it’s used.”

Gaudette said MathWorks often hosts students from nearby schools to show them how math can lead to careers.

“We tell them where we came from, what we do here and give them that background to help them see what the possibilities are,” he said. “Connecting it to the real world — that’s key.”

A big change from the past, Sweeney said, is that process is working the opposite way as well. Many engineers — himself included — have left their careers to get into teaching; Sweeney estimated more than half of the math teachers at the Advanced Math and Science Academy come from that kind of technical background.

But just as important as a deep knowledge of the subject is an educator’s ability to connect with students in a meaningful way.

“I’m passionate about it,” he said. “I want to see our kids — and all kids — be successful at it.”

*MetroWest Daily News (Mass.) reporter Scott O’Connell can be reached at 508-626-4449 or soconnell@wickedlocal.com.*