Is there a debate: Are students behind in math?

To be behind insinuates there is a line, someone must be first, and someone must be last, with everyone else lined up in order. As parents we want our kids to be near the front of the line, and anything else is difficult to watch.

Before diving into the debate, and more serious discussions on matters related to education, math, and the future of our children, let’s set up an analogy. Are you behind in the laundry? I know it’s not exactly the same, nor is it “worth” the same. I get it, because I love math, and I live math. But, this is also a family blog, so hear me out.

Laundry (or fill in the chore of your choice)… some weeks I feel so caught up, it’s glorious. But, in reality, it just keeps coming, and if I am being honest, I should never rest because there is always more clothes to wash, or fold, or put away, or organize. There is always something new to do with clothes to make the laundry situation better. Most days and most weeks, it is good enough. Sometimes, though, it is overwhelming, and all of our bedrooms plus the laundry room are overflowing with clothes in multiples stages. Am I behind? I think the questions really are: Am I not up to my standards? I am not keeping up with the other people in the neighborhood? Am I disappointing people in my family? Is my mother-in-law judging me? Am I behind the laundry chore timeline that earlier generations of laundry care have set?

You have probably seen some of the articles about students being behind in math because of being out of the classroom since March, in whatever fashion that looks like in your schools. Or, maybe you have seen some discussion about it on social media. Here are some resources for background:

So, are students really behind?

Due to Covid-19, most of our kids have been schooling differently for almost a year now. Will that make a difference in their education? In their futures? In our collective society? No one really knows the answer to these questions. There is a lot to conjecture, but I think it is clear there are concerns about students falling behind academically. As an expert in learning gaps, I can examine the impact of remote (or hybrid) learning might have on your children, and give you some advice moving forward.

The opinions in articles have used test scores as evidence for lack of growth, as in every other school year. Among other findings, a highlight is that math scores “slipped 5 to 10 points” compared to 2019, while reading scores have remained stable or have increased. Further investigation, in my opinion, needs to be done surrounding the assessments. Granted a very small sample size, my own children have been in a school building with any consistency since March, and I do not know how they would have taken any standardized assessment of the caliber or validity needed for data to determine the progression of learning this year. On some tests they take, their cameras and microphones need to remain on, so distractions from every home is abundant. Other assessments allow for both cameras and microphones off. Not sure how any test results can be valid in that situation. The impact of internet stability, computer accessibility, and home environment are variables that cannot be overlooked when determining progress. Best practices in recent years has shown that for K-12 classroom assessments, a low-stakes test is preferred, especially in our current climate, but if we are trying to measure progress, we cannot rely on taking online assessments at home.

But, there are articles, opinions, and some data. So, what does all this mean?

Reading scores are doing well, according to the reports. My hypothesis is that students are most likely performing better in reading than in math because the majority of students can read at home with little to no adult assistance, at least by third grade. It’s an independent activity, and also does not necessarily build on the skills of the previous year. For example, let’s say last year your child was supposed to learn idioms, but did not do that due to the schools closing and remote learning is difficult. While there is a gap in his learning, one that will need to be filled eventually, it may not be inhibiting him from learning about sentence structure or protagonists now. Parts of learning in language arts are linear, but it isn’t as dependent on prior concept understanding as math. 

Math is a less- less independent of an activity, less understood by parents, less liked by children, but also it is more linear. It is more important for students to have mastered (or at least been exposed to, and actively participated in) a previous concept before moving on. For example, let’s say now your child is learning to solve for x in what you think are simple algebraic equations and she is struggling. The issue may not be the remote learning, per se, but that it may be hard for her to learn so solve all problems for x if she either never learned or never was exposed to adding and subtracting with negative numbers, or does not understand inverse operations. Some parents try to teach the current skill, in this case, solving for x, but it is harder to really understand what is missing that is most challenging for the student.

There are many issues, educational and otherwise during this pandemic. I am not minimizing them, and certainly not trying to compare them to dirty clothes. Students who struggle in math have been struggling prior to last spring, and may be continuing to do so now. Parents worry about their kids, that’s our job. We feel the pressure of so much now, and when data is coming out that math scores are lagging, and we know we alone might not be able to catch them up, it feels similar to the experience of when the laundry is piling up. Do we give up or do we panic? I’d argue, somewhere in between, or really neither. When the laundry starts to feel overwhelming, as wonderful as it may be to just throw our clothes out and start over, we certainly can’t give up. It’s not practical, and definitely unrealistic for most of us to do that. We just need to take it one task at a time, and get caught up. The laundry will get done, at least for the moment, and then we will get to a place where we will feel the pull of being behind and then ahead. For laundry, like learning, there is always something to do, for all of us.

Obviously it is easier for most kids to learn in the classroom. Under all of the debate out there, I don’t think anyone is disputing the school setting is what is best for students, where kids and students are not solely on their computers, regardless of the location, where interaction and discussion, and real learning can happen. I envision that education will change in 2021 and beyond, as we address priorities, learning styles, advancements in technologies, societal shifts, harsh realities, etc.

Learning gaps will need to be filled, and I am hopeful, and passionate about that. The questions are many, and should be asked now by educators and administrators at all levels: If students learned less, what skills do they need to learn? Are they missing skills, and how do we make sure they “fill the gaps” before moving on to learn concepts that require foundational concepts? Can we do this concurrently? How is the best way to fill gaps? And most importantly, when can we get started? Remote learning has some benefits, that I will call silver linings. No one is saying it is ideal for everyone. However, we can fill gaps virtually, with targeted lessons. All teaching and learning is valuable, and any time we can get our kids to log on and be engaged, even if it is with the ceiling in view and not their faces, it is critical to do so. But, more than just logging in and teaching math, which is more than a challenge now, but an uphill battle, let’s do it, target gaps and personalize the learning for students. Let’s let technology be our co-pilot and help our students with lessons they can use. And, when we return to the classroom, let’s continue to be patient. If we readjust the expectations, and then rise back to our levels of normalcy, in every facet of our lives, including math education and math learning, I know we can be back on track. The future of our kids’ education is dependent on how we handle the transition back to school. Sometimes slow and steady really does win the race, filling the gaps and sealing the holes along the way.

Photo by Mateusz Dach on

The laundry will always be there. Learning will always be here, and no time like the present to start filling gaps. But, the debate remains: Are students behind? To be behind insinuates there is a line, someone must be first, and someone must be last, with everyone else lined up in order in the middle. As parents we want our kids to be near the front of the line, and anything else is difficult to watch. We want to do anything we can to help our kids. But, my fear, as a math educator and as a parent, is that we are doing too much comparing and labeling right now, at a time when a better strategy might be to take each day as it comes, and work through each task. Learning, like laundry, will always be there in the sense that there is no end, it’s a journey towards our own destination, whatever that may look like. There’s no end to learning, as there is always something more to learn.

Is there a debate? Yes. But, are students behind? No. Not really. I guess that’s for you to decide whether we can use relative terms to determine students’ progress. In my opinion, even though we might be able to use arguments of curriculum position (“My kid isn’t where he should be compared to other years”) or scores and grades are lower (“My kid’s GPA is much lower than when all the kids were in school), all of these, we must remember, are also constructs created by educational institutions to build the journey towards an end destination (promotion, graduation, school advancement, etc.). It is important to remember that math learning is a journey, and even though it may seem different now, it’s the impetus we need to change the way we teach and learn.

However, I will leave it up to you, my readers, to decide, and to debate. I encourage you to comment, or to go to my my Facebook page or website for resources on education.


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