The scores of our statewide assessments demonstrate Washington's continued lackluster performance in math. We are not seeing the steady growth we expect or that our society needs.
A 2010 Georgetown University study demonstrates that the majority of jobs in Washington state will soon require some postsecondary education. As we are a tech-heavy state, our graduates should be ready to tackle postsecondary math and STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) careers. The last thing we want to see is Washington import the talent while our unprepared graduates sit on the sidelines.
It’s a big problem.
So what can we do? What are the variables of success?
At the state/policy level, we continue to address the variables in our control. In my time as State Board of Education member and current chairman, we’ve offered our reviews and recommendations on elementary/middle school and high school math and standards and curriculum. And we’ve also added a third credit of math to the graduation requirements for the class of 2013. In the big picture, I know that all this will help, but it is not enough. I think a more important change has to happen on a personal level, something much more profound than the policy the State Board of Education and others work on.
We must collectively change how our students relate to math personally. So let’s talk about variables we can individually control or impact, today, to begin to make a positive difference in our students’ ability to understand and excel in math.
• Take math: Encourage your student to take math. This is especially important for our high school students who often have the option of skipping out on one or two years of math (to meet minimum state and/or district credit graduation requirements). It’s tough to gain mastery without exposure and practice. Insist your children stick with mathematics; it will pay dividends in the long run.
• Practice math: Make math a part of your family conversations. Spend some time talking about math and science and how it relates to the things you do. Ask your elementary students word problems that require addition and subtraction; get your middle school children to figure how much paint to buy for the living room or how many plants are needed to fill a garden row; and have your high school student help you solve for X (and life certainly has a lot of them).
• Support math: Look for the math that exists in the everyday objects your children use and the activities they enjoy. Talk about how you and other adults important to your children use math to solve issues essential to daily life. Provide time and a space for your student to complete math homework and insist they teach you what they’ve learned. Most importantly, remind them that math, as with all knowledge, opens doors to the future. The common denominator here is that we will be modeling that math is important. If we make math a priority in our children’s education, providing ample support and practice, we are creating a value in their lives that will return dividends for them for years to come.
I believe that we can address the problems with today’s math equation. Teachers and administrators, board members and policy makers, all have to do their part. But in the final analysis, no one can replicate or replace the effect on our children of a caring adult at home who teaches by example the role of mathematics in a life well-lived.
Jeff Vincent, chief executive officer of Laird Norton, is chairman of the Washington State Board of Education.