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No parent left behind: Resources abound to help parents conquer math with their children

Published: Sunday, Dec. 2 2012 6:10 p.m. MST

Scott Dalgleish helps his daughter Brittany with her math homework as RaNae Dalgleish and son Seth get dinner ready at their home in Midvale on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2011.

Mike Terry, Deseret News

When their kids were in grade school, Heidi Raker was the designated math helper for daughters Isabel and Olivia and son Joshua. When they entered middle school and the math got a bit trickier, the Haworth, N.J., mom happily recruited her husband, Stuart Goldstein.

Goldstein had spent a couple of decades as an investment trader on Wall Street before the couple decided to form a public relations firm. He wasn’t afraid of the homework challenge as his daughter moved into Algebra I, Geometry or Algebra II. But he did notice something: In the 30 years since he’d taken high school math, the subject seemed to have changed a bit. “It seems like it’s taught differently, or like it’s more advanced. I don’t remember myself as a sixth- or an eighth-grader getting so involved in this type of math.”

He also noticed that there are more resources to help a parent help kids struggling with math in middle school and high school than there were when Goldstein’s parents were trying to help him. That was before the Internet put everything at one’s fingertips. The Web has helped him find what he needs quite well when he’s aiding Olivia, 14, who is in eighth grade, or Joshua, 10, who is in fifth grade. He uses some of those resources to bone up on concepts with the kids, or they go through the textbook together. It’s usually enough.

He’s given up, though, on trying to help Isabel, 17, with calculus. He never took that class. “She’s pretty self-directed. When she needs help, she goes to websites or her peers or does the extra-credit work,” he said.

As for Raker, she was “OK in math,” but grew up in an era when moms routinely told girls they weren’t good in math. “I lived up to that. I went into creative areas like writing where I could use other skills.” There’ve been a couple of times, to her children’s chagrin, that she has gone in after school with them for extra math help. Khan Academy, she noted, has made it OK to feel inadequate at math. “It offers a simplified approach and I don’t have to go to teachers who don’t want to spend their time educating me.

“If I hadn’t married a guy who is all about numbers and rational, I’m not sure where the kids and I would be,” she said.

Lost, perhaps, like so many adults who have been away from math too long, who don’t remember, who never learned or who learned to do math differently.

Transitioning

Raker was influenced by her mother’s attitude about math, and that’s a common scenario, said mathematics professor Bill Moore of Western Washington University. In the United States, parents often pass along the idea that good math students are born, not made. Moore heads the Transition Mathematics Project, a Washington state program to help high school math students progress smoothly to college-level math.

"In our culture we tend to communicate that it's all about being smart — you've got it or don’t," Moore said. "In Eastern countries, it's very much about hard work and being persistent.”

Moore said parents can help their kids by convincing them that they can do math if they put in the work and stay with it.

"That's something that doesn't come readily in this culture. It has to be cultivated, and parents can support that in the messages they send," he said.

But, a positive attitude won’t get tonight’s homework assignment done. There’s an old joke that says if you’ve never used your high school math, you’ve never had a son or daughter in high school. For many, it’s a painful truth. And, the stakes for doing well in math have never been higher.

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