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.
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.
In the United States, passing Algebra II is an important gateway to success in college and careers, said Moore. Students who lack a strong foundation in math when they graduate from high school will have a harder time getting into college, and will likely need to take remedial courses. Many won't finish college.
"If you don't get through that first college-level math class, a lot of doors are closed to you," Moore said. "There are so many fewer opportunities for people with just a high school diploma. Almost all of the high-wage programs require a foundation of algebra skills."
Building on Algebra II by taking Trigonometry or Precalculus has additional advantages, more than doubling the odds that a student will complete a bachelor's degree, according to a U.S. Department of Education study.
Mastering the core
Parents who want to trace the progression of concepts taught in Algebra I, Geometry, Algebra II, Trigonometry and Calculus have a new avenue for getting information. The District of Columbia and 45 states have adopted common core state standards that will improve the availability of math resources online and elsewhere, Moore said. And, states won’t have to keep reinventing the wheel for math helps.
"Now there will be common ground, and that's got potential for being helpful to teachers and parents," he said.
Moore recommends the illustrativemathematics.org website for parents who want to trace the progression of the common core math concepts their children need to master. The site was created for teachers, but is helpful for families, too.
Numerous websites offer free math instruction, Moore said, and Khan Academy's website, khanacademy.org, is one of his favorites.
"What Khan has done is break things down into small bits — focused topics, and supportive video about the topics," he said. "There are substantial sets of problems students can work through, set up in a game-oriented environment."
Few parents realize that most math textbook companies have websites that offer chapter-by-chapter explanations of math concepts, and these can be a good source of help. Sometimes, though, tutoring from an expert is the best solution, even when a parent is willing to help.
San Diego dad Mark Shapiro got good grades in high school, but math was always his weak point. Now, when he tries to help his kids, Jane, 14, and Emma, 18, he looks at their textbooks and has “no concept.” He, too, is convinced that math used to be simpler.
Even as a student, it was clear to him that when he had a good math teacher, he did really well. The years he had a bad teacher were awful. “It all depends on the teacher they have and how much that teacher has experience to explain the math.”
He tried to get referrals from teachers, friends and friends who are teachers. Most didn’t have a clear suggestion on where he could get help as his kids began to struggle with math. Jane, he said, was shy and hated going in after school to ask for help. His enthusiasm waned. To help, he’d go online and do some reading and checking. It worked, but it was cumbersome.
Almost by accident, he tripped over a math tutor, located across the country in New York, who happened to belong to the same business bartering group he did. The owner of math123.com said he didn’t have a tutor available in San Diego but was willing to provide help by phone. It was a marvel, said Shapiro. Within 90 minutes, Jane not only had the concepts down, but they’d figured out where she got lost so she could catch up.
“He told me a lot of people who are good teachers are not good tutors and a lot who are good in math can’t teach or tutor,” Shapiro said. “His advantage was he knew the book and could take her through it without having it in front of him. We were lucky I found him.”
If free resources aren’t enough, professional tutoring can be worth its cost. Learning centers, such as Sylvan or Kumon, can test for learning gaps, then create programs to help students catch up, manage daily homework and study for tests.
As the Shapiro family learned, tutoring can be done online or by telephone, as well. Math 1-2-3’s owner, Mark Kronenberg, said families appreciate being able to stay at home for math sessions. Sometimes a single session will get a student back on track in math, but that's unusual, Kronenberg said. Getting behind in math happens over time, and it takes time to fix the situation.
"Generally, when a student is struggling it means they've had a poor foundation in math in previous years," he said, noting that many of today's kids haven’t memorized multiplication tables, and are calculator-dependent.
Students with shaky math foundations often mislabel themselves as "dumb in math," Kronenberg said. Confidence soars after a tutor fills in learning gaps and teaches mental math strategies, such as estimating.
Options for help with math homework
Most of today's math textbook publishers sponsor websites that furnish helps for parents and students. These may include chapter-by-chapter explanations of math concepts, along with demonstrations, glossaries, videos and more. Doing a web search using the name of your math textbook's publisher should locate helpful resources. See the Pearson Prentice Hall at phschool.com or Houghton Mifflin Harcourt's Education Place at eduplace.com.
AAA Math at aaamath.com has hundreds of pages explaining basic math skills, arranged by grade level. There are interactive practice opportunities.
The Illustrative Mathematics website at illustrativemathematics.org traces the grade-by-grade progression of common core state standards. Clicking on the topics will open up additional information and examples.
The Wolfram Alpha site at wolframalpha.com is every math student's dream. Students can type in their questions and get the answers. Parents might want to supervise, to ensure that students don't use the site to copy answers without working problems. But, Wolfram Alpha provides a great way to check whether the answers students work out are correct, and to see methods for attacking specific problems.
The Math in Daily Life site at learner.org helps students see how math relates to their activities and decisions.
Sometimes, families overlook opportunities for help within their school systems. Ask whether your school offers after-school help sessions. (Sometimes these are targeted toward at-risk students.)
Many school districts offer summer academies for students who failed math classes. These can get kids back on track.
Private tutoring companies abound, but many are expensive. Families would do well to ask neighbors if they know of a math-gifted high school or college student willing to provide tutoring sessions for a bargain price. School math departments may know local people who do private tutoring.
Professional tutors who can fill in learning gaps can be worth their cost. Besides such services as Sylvan Learning Center and Kumon Learning Center, there are online options. At Math 1-2-3, WebEx video-conferencing software allows students to work with tutors from their own homes. The format allows tutor and student to see one another, and the problems they are working on, via computer screen.
Sources: Davis School District, Utah; Transition Math Project, Washington; Math123
Tips for parents of struggling math students
Show an interest in your child's math homework, even if you don't understand it. Review your child's math homework and test scores.
Check your own math attitude. Your child might sense any negative feelings you have about math. Stay positive.
Discuss with your child what traits and habits can help to achieve success in math. Those include taking responsibility for learning, paying attention to detail and persevering when the going gets tough.
Source: Transition Math Project, Washington
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