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'I'm Not a Math Person' Just Doesn't Add Up

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Guest blogger Debbie Wesslund is one of seven members of the Jefferson County Board of Education in Louisville, KY - a district of more than 100,000 students. She writes about how the community can support high math expectations.

We need to do better at math. As a community.

I notice more and more that we often laugh off an inadequacy at math, by saying things like, "I'm not a math person."

I recently heard a college president say this at an education event. This need to publicize our failure at the subject, and support each other in math phobia, adds up to an ad hoc support group for low expectations.

No one means any harm, but messages get lodged in our minds, and when adults say stuff, kids listen, and they may give themselves an excuse for not trying hard.

Jefferson County Public Schools is focusing on better math outcomes for students. While we did well overall as our test scores indicated, our achievement level in Algebra II was not where it needs to be.

I think most educators would agree that this low performance is because too many kids enter the upper level math classes not well prepared.

A young Algebra II teacher confirmed that assumption when I asked her if she has to do a lot of remediation. Her eyes got big and she shook her head decidedly, "yes."

That's not always the case. My JCPS-educated daughter did well in math, even though the STEM subject areas are not her chosen career path.

I credit her early success to an elementary teacher who excelled in math instruction. She called her first and second grade students "mathematicians." Every one of them. Before the first week of school was completed, Mrs. Brooks had parents enlisted each day to come in and work on math basics with kids who were struggling to learn. At the end of each week, all student accomplishments were celebrated.

My daughter recalls that Mrs. Brooks expected all kids to work hard. When you mastered a concept, you moved to the next level. Emma admits that the constant push and practice gave her a firm foundation.

Her Dad and I recall that the teacher set overall expectations at orientation. When asked by a parent, "How do you handle discipline problems?" Mrs. Brooks said, "I don't have discipline problems." We all sat straighter in the small student chairs.

I asked this elementary teacher a few years ago what the key to good math instruction was. She said, "Teachers have to know their content." And I would add, high expectations.

At age 55, I am back in school and taking a statistics course toward a graduate degree. I talked to my daughter, Emma, home for a short visit from college, about how hard it was to grasp a statistics concept that includes a math problem. I said, "When there are long equations and a lot of X's and Y's, I get confused."

Emma said, "Mom, don't get nervous, those are just place holders for numbers." That helped a lot.

The point is, I can do it, we all can do it, and our kids need to do it.

In the past I have certainly said, "I am not a math person." And, I remember struggling in Algebra I years ago. I could have done better, but I didn't ask for help, and no one really offered it. Also, I was way more interested in my new green velvet majorette costume with white fur trim for the fall football season.

I could have, should have done better. And, more of our kids are capable of high-level math, too.

The community knows that math knowledge is key to a well-rounded education, builds great critical thinking skills, and is the entry to many next generation careers.

What can you do to help? Give up the jokes about math, and expect all our kids to be mathematicians, like Mrs. Brooks still does.

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