News A numbers game 

The way to teach local kids math is to teach them how to read

The state's new math TAKS test consists of 60 word problems, and it's not the numbers that are puzzling students. According to area teachers, students aren't getting lost in the multiplication process, but rather, in the text of the questions that make math applicable to real life. Johnny might be able to figure out the equation, but he struggles when he has to apply it to compounding annual interest or figuring how many rose bushes to plant in a 10-foot garden. Some experts say that Johnny's trouble may result from his misunderstanding of words such as "annual."

click to enlarge news-math2_330jpg
Number problems are easier for kids to solve than
word problems because of language barriers or
poor reading skills.

According to the Intercultural Development Research Association, one in seven students in the United States learned English as a second language. Jose Rodriguez, education associate at IDRA, echoed many lecturers at last week's International Mathematics and Education Conference when he told teachers to speak more slowly and carefully explain terms that are easily confused with other words, such as median and medium. Math teachers often must also become reading teachers to help their students succeed.

Rodriguez encouraged teachers to connect with their students, saying that kids bring knowledge into the classroom and teachers need to build on that. "I had to learn 'cholo' (gangsta) as my third language," joked Rodriguez, who speaks Spanish and English.

In her address at the conference, Miriam Leiva, president of TODOS: Mathematics for ALL, told about 300 teachers and administrators that she has watched her students successfully complete a math equation but trip up when the same equation was written as a word problem. "They couldn't get through a sentence," she said. TODOS is a national organization designed to support and assist educators in teaching mathematics, particularly to Hispanic and Latino students.

Leiva explained that the old ways of teaching math did not produce great math and science minds. Many of the great mathematicians and scientists are from other countries, she said citing New York Times columnist and author of The World is Flat, Thomas Friedman. He points out in his book that the proportion of foreign-born Ph.D.s in the American science and engineering labor force has risen to 38 percent while federal funding for mathematical science research has declined 37 percent in the last 35 years. According to a 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science study, 15-year-old students in the United States scored below the average international math score and were outperformed by 23 of 38 countries in math.

Scores are even worse for Texas children, who rank below the national level in state standardized tests and college entrance exams. While 2003 SAT scores in math reached a 36-year high nationwide, Texans saw only a one-point increase and outscored only four states, according to College Board, which operates the SAT, the nation's leading college entrance exam.

"If we have one weakness of students who enter UTSA it's in mathematics," said Guy Bailey, UTSA provost and vice president for academic affairs. "You can't be an accountant or biologist without it."

"Mathematics really is a determining factor with our kids. If they're not taking accelerated math and science classes, it's difficult for them to get into our four-year universities."

- Jose Franco
Hispanic and African-American students generally score lower on standardized tests than white students. Experts often cite economic disadvantages and language barriers to explain the lower marks. In 2005, 88 percent of white sixth graders passed the math portion of the TAKS test; 70 percent of Hispanics and 64 percent of black students did the same. Only 35 percent of students labeled "limited English proficient" met the passing standard. Students can take the TAKS test three times in Spanish, but must pass it in English to graduate high school.

"Mathematics really is a determining factor with our kids," said Jose Franco, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who serves on the board of TODOS. "If they're not taking accelerated math and science classes, it's difficult for them to get into our four-year universities."

Hispanics are disproportionately underrepresented in Texas universities, accounting for 25 percent of higher-education students but 40 percent of those who are of college age, according to the 2000 census.

The mathematics conference last week aimed to show teachers how to teach math to students for whom English is a second language. However, many teachers at the conference credited lack of funding, parental uninvolvement, and unmotivated kids for low test scores. The biggest complaint of teachers seemed to be a scarcity time with their students, saying that 45 minutes a day is too short of a class period. Funding shortfalls have also left a dearth of teachers and therefore prompted larger class sizes, meaning teachers have less individual time with each student.

A recent study by the Center on Education Policy showed that two-thirds of the nation's poorest school districts will receive less money for the next school year. Spending under the Department of Education's Title I program, which benefits children in high poverty areas, is increasing by 3.2 percent, but the growing number of poor children outpaces the funding increase.

Yet local teachers are accustomed to "making do." As they left the conference last week, teachers expressed the hope that they are returning to their classrooms better math teachers, and apparently better reading teachers, too.

By Heather Holmes


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