An Optimist’s Approach to Solving America’s Math Problem: The Concept Schools Model

An Optimist’s Approach to Solving America’s Math Problem: The Concept Schools Model

“The cognitive-science research suggested a startling cause of Americans’ innumeracy: school.” —Elizabeth Green, “Why Does America Stink at Math?”

Have you seen the recent New York Times article “Why Does America Stink at Math?” making the rounds on the Web? It’s definitely worth a read. The take-home message is that, as a nation, we suffer from “innumeracy” or “quantitative deficiency.” The author uses the example of more Americans preferring McDonald’s Quarter Pounder to the A&W 1/3 pound hamburger because they think the Quarter Pounder contains more meat.

Unfortunately, this small sampling of American’s math problem is no fluke.

The Glass Half Empty

According to the most recent published Program for International Student Assessment (PSIA) data (2012), the U.S. ranks lower than 27 countries in math and 17 countries in science. The latest ACT results indicate that 56% of U.S. high school graduates are not college-ready in math, and only 36% of high school graduates are college-ready in science (Condition of College & Career Readiness 2013).

These statistics are all the more sobering when you take into account that 92% of all U.S. STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) jobs are predicted to require a postsecondary education by 2018. Moreover, while only 4% of U.S. workers are in STEM careers, they create jobs for the other 96% of workers (Carnevale, Smith, & Strohl, 2010).

The Glass Half Full

Not everyone has such a pessimistic outlook on our ability to do math, however. The author of EduNext’s “Americans Stink at Math, But We’re Much Better Now!” sees reason for hope, pointing out there have been overall gains in students math scores since 1973 (See NAEP 2012 results). There is evidence that the achievement gap between white and minority students has narrowed slightly the past few decades, perhaps in large part due to stricter testing standards in all states. Many believe that the Common Core will help bring American students up to speed in math.

When these studies or articles come out, many act as though they are revelations. But aren’t they just telling us what we already know? In your own life, how many times have you heard someone (or yourself) say, “I’m just not a math person”? It almost seems that as a nation, we have accepted our “innumeracy” as an inevitable, and even acceptable, part of being American.

We at Concept Schools, for one, refuse to accept this stereotype! That is why all of our 30 public charter schools in the Midwest are STEM-focused, college prep, and free. Our schools, like all charter schools, are non-selective. We specialize in serving urban and low-income communities where these types of educational opportunities traditionally have not been available. We hold all of our students to high academic standards and have an array of resources and dedicated staff to help students reach their highest potential.

Concept Schools’ Approach to Math

In addition to offering STEM-focused extracurricular activities such as the annual MathCON and Concept Science & Engineering Fair and MathCounts program (learn more on our Math Department page), as well as early engineering programs such as our award-winning robotics clubs, we also offer more instructional hours in math per school year than traditional public schools, employ math-trained teachers teaching math, and use a student-centered, evidence- and project-based math curriculum based on the following philosophy.

Our Two Guiding Principles

These principles are taken from the National Council on Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM):

  • Activities should grow out of problem situations.
  • Learning occurs through active as well as passive involvement with mathematics.

Active Learning

We believe that learning should not be conceived of as a process in which students passively absorb information, storing it in easily retrievable pieces as a result of repeated practice and reinforcement.

Rather, Concept Schools takes the constructive, active view of the mathematical learning. Our mathematics instruction is varied and includes opportunities for:

  • appropriate project work;
  • group and individual assignments;
  • discussion between teacher and students and among students;
  • exposition by the teacher; and
  • practice in mathematical methods.

21st-Century Approach

In our K-12 Math Program, three features of mathematics are embedded in the Standards.

First, “Knowing” mathematics is “doing” mathematics. A student gathers, discovers, or creates knowledge in the course of some activity having a purpose. We do not assert that informational knowledge has no value, only that its value lays in the extent to which it is useful in the course of some purposeful activity.

Second, “doing math” has changed, even in the last decade. The computer’s ability to process large sets of information has made quantification and the logical analysis of information possible in such areas as business, economics, biology, medicine, and engineering. Our curriculum provides opportunities for all students to develop an understanding of mathematical models, structures, and simulations applicable to many disciplines.

Third, technology not only has made calculations and graphing easier, it has also changed the very nature of mathematics and the methods mathematicians use. Technology is essential in teaching and learning math; it influences the math lessons and enhances student learning.

At Concept Schools, we believe that it is very effective to integrate mathematical content and technology in a manner that enables students to do playful mathematical studies and even discoveries.

The Role of Technology

Because technology is changing mathematics and its uses, Concept Schools Mathematics Department believes that:

  • appropriate calculators should be available to all students at all times;
  • a computer, a projector, and Smart board/Starboard should be available in every classroom for demonstration purposes;
  • every student should have access to a computer for individual and group work; and
  • students should learn to use the computer as a tool for processing information and performing calculations to investigate and solve problems.

We recognize, however, that access to this technology does not guarantee that any student will become mathematically literate. The technology in the classroom is needed to simplify, but not to accomplish, the work at hand.

All students can “do math.” All they need is the right education and a dose of confidence—in themselves and from their parents and teachers—that they can achieve anything, even in math.

Learn more about Concept Schools’ educational model. The Annual MathCON competition is an online test open to all students in all types of schools. Finals are held in Chicago each April for the nation’s top scorers.

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