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Matthew Lynch, Ed.D. Headshot

Math Learning - A Universal Language?

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Fifth-grade students at Woodward Elementary School had an interesting math assignment this fall: watching college football games. Though seemingly fun on the surface, the assignment had an ulterior motive. Students were asked not simply to watch the college football games, but to score the plays and keep track of yards, points and time. The raw data they collected was then translated into fractions and percentages and used as mathematics learning tools.

What is most remarkable about this assignment, first reported by Fox News, is that the point of the exercise was not simply to make math "fun" or practical. Teacher Scarlett Childers was also looking for a way to reach across the socio-economic and language barriers of her students. At Woodward, 98 percent of the student body is on the subsidized lunch program and 95 percent learned English as a second language. Math, it seems, became a universal language in her classroom, better understood through a real-world assignment.

The statistics at Woodward represent a larger cultural trend, too. Over 60 million people, or one-fifth of people, in the U.S. do not speak English at home which presents a problem in English-speaking K-12 classrooms. Dual-language programs have long been the trendy tactic for bringing down language-learning barriers but is math the real answer?

Urban improvement

President Obama's Race to the Top initiative emphasizes STEM learning, particularly in mathematics, in order for more students to make it to high school graduation and the college degree beyond it. That push is founded on facts. Take Rhode Island, for example. In the state, poor math performance in high school is linked to lower enrollment in college and failure to complete college. Under 42 percent of 11th grade Rhode Island students who were considered "below proficient" on NECAP math ended up enrolling in college. Rhode Island is not exactly known as a diverse area, so that statistic presumably means that most of those students are native English speakers and from mid- to high-income households.

Imagine then the ramifications of that statistic on more diverse, urban K-12 classrooms?

The good news is that urban school districts, though still often underperforming in math, are showing the greatest positive improvement in math achievement. Large cities are making progress more quickly than the nation as a whole. Fourth and eighth graders in U.S. cities with at least 250,000 people have improved more quickly in math learning than the national average, according to a report by National Assessment of Educational Progress. The students who speak English as a second language in these urban settings are improving at a faster rate in math than their native English-speaking peers around the country - and that speaks volumes to the power of math as a universal subject and equalizer.

There are certainly programs that target urban students when it comes to math, and other STEM, learning but I'd like to think that much of that progress is a direct result of the teachers in the classroom, like Scarlett Childers. There is no way that one math-learning or ESL initiative drawn up by a district or the state can adequately address the students that need the extra boost. Individualized plans, like the college football scoring assignment, are what really get through to students and bring them to a place of better long-term comprehension.

Instead of being a learning complexity, I believe innovative math learning initiatives are the key to overall K-12 academic improvement. Math is a universal language and one that needs practical applications to really have an impact. That starts with the teachers but needs support from the decision-makers to truly make a difference.

How do you reach your students when it comes to math learning? What innovative ways help you?