Calm down, parents: Math standards boost skills, understanding

Sahar Zadeh
Sahar Zadeh

Math is currently being taught in a way most people over the age of 30 may not understand.

It doesn’t take anything more than a multi-step subtraction problem to result in a wide spectrum of reactions, including Facebook posts from confused parents that go viral.

But there is a reason behind the creation and implementation of our state’s math standards, and it is not a mystery.

Math is not a list of disconnected topics, tricks or mnemonics; it is a coherent body of knowledge made up of interconnected concepts.

School curricula should be designed around correlated progressions from grade to grade so students can build new understanding on previously built foundations, a more expanded and realistic representation of mathematics than what today’s adults may have experienced in their formal schooling years.

With this goal in mind, the newly adopted mathematical standards are benchmarked to the standards of the top education systems in the world, including Finland and Japan.

They are designed to address the problems of a curriculum that was “a mile wide and an inch deep” by building upon the most recent studies on how students learn and retain information. These standards are about developing ways of thinking alongside ways of doing. The two work hand-in-hand.

The Prichard Committee Student Voice Team put the newer standards to the test when we visited a third-grade classroom at Red Oak Elementary School in Nicholasville. We watched as the students were presented a problem to solve.

Mrs. Burns, the teacher, requires her students to derive the solution though both multiplication and addition with an emphasis on an analytical development process, asking them to explain not simply what they got but how they got their answers.

She focuses on a process that emphasizes the difference between knowing how to solve simple multiplication problems and determining whether multiplication is the most efficient strategy.

Through a vocal, systematic methodology the students are able to break apart the day’s learning target. We heard one say: “I can multiply a whole number up to four digits by a one-digit number.”

We witnessed the teacher explain how to solve up to four-digit multiplication problems through partial products — a concept usually reserved for higher grade levels — and were impressed hearing her use words like “misconception” and “efficient” with her rapt eight- and nine-year-olds.

Fast forward a few years into high school and you might run into me, a high-school sophomore, taking AP Calculus BC.

As a student in a magnet program specifically targeting professions that relate to mathematics, I thoroughly understand the importance of comprehension, explanation and proofs when learning new, abstract ideas.

In a process resonant with Mrs. Burns’ approach, my calculus teacher introduced the topic of integrals and solved a sample problem using two different methods.

By the end of that class period not only did we have multiple tools in our arsenal we had also mastered how to use them. We understand that mathematics is an abstract flexible topic that is not constricted to a finite set of rules and theorems.

Kentucky’s mathematical standards are deepening the contextual understanding of numbers and equations. Proficiency in these skills plays an imperative role when it comes to preparing all students for a successful education, whether or not they choose to pursue a further interest in the subject.

Rather than racing to cover many topics superficially, Kentucky’s academic standards ask math teachers to significantly narrow the way time and energy are utilized in the classroom by focusing deeply on specific concepts for each grade level.

Because Kentucky’s math standards may not hew to the way they were taught, many parents have understandable frustration in trying to decipher the thinking behind them.

But if it’s assurance they’re after, rather than turning to Facebook to clarify the seemingly fuzzy math, might they consider listening to some informed classroom voices instead?

Sahar Zadeh, a sophomore at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Lexington, is communications director for the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team.

Related: Oct. 12 Herald-Leader article, “Suggestions made to change Kentucky's academic standards; Survey receives 4,000 comments”

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader