Math Struggles and Solutions


           by Carolyn Forte    

 You may be surprised to learn that the teaching of “math” has changed dramatically in the last half century.  Beginning in the 1960’s, algebra and other elements of higher math have been inserted in our nation’s math books from kindergarten on.  This experiment in educating America’s children has not turned out well. Our nation’s math scores have declined steadily since the first “New Math” was introduced with much fanfare 60 years ago.  Remarkably, the failure of each “reform” of the math curriculum opens the door for one that is even worse. Now, abstract concepts formerly reserved for high school students are sprinkled liberally throughout elementary school math books, causing great confusion for students, parents and even teachers.  Common Core has only added another layer of educational insanity to an already incoherent math curriculum.

 A thorough understanding of arithmetic, an essential prerequisite for algebra, Cartesian geometry, calculus and statistics is no longer a priority in our nation’s schools. Children as young as kindergarten, are bombarded with abstract problems in “probability” and “algebraic thinking.”  The resulting frustration leads to avoidance, burnout and worst of all, the conviction that, “I’m not good at math.” Even those who seem to thrive are not necessarily safe, because their immature minds cannot always understand the concepts presented. They may be able to perform the tasks assigned to the satisfaction of the teacher, while developing inappropriate brain pathways that will cause blocks to deeper understanding later. (See Endangered Minds by Jane Healy, Ph.D.)  

 A survey of the Common Core Math Standards exposes the fact that those writing the nation’s math programs are either ignorant of the normal cognitive development of young children or they are actively trying to sabotage math understanding in our nation’s schools.  Homeschooled children don’t have to fall into this tragic trap, but the only way is to avoid most current math texts. Dr. Homeschool highly recommends R.J. Toftness’ excellent resource, Unlocking the Mystery to Math to use as a guide and diagnostic tool.  Mr. Toftness, a talented and experienced math tutor, explains the differences between Arithmetic, Algebra, Geometry and Calculus and provides diagnostic tests to help you determine where your child needs help and where the holes in understanding lie.  

The only current texts I am comfortable recommending are in the Life of Fred series by Stanley F. Schmidt, Ph.D.  Although Mr. Schmidt follows the current standards by inserting algebra and other higher math into elementary school, he does it with such creativity, humor and depth of understanding, that the possible harm is minimized. 

 If you wish to give your children a firm foundation in real concrete arithmetic without the mental stress of algebra, etc. before they are developmentally ready, the Ray’s Arithmetic Series from Mott Media (originally published ca. 1880) is easily the best math program available today.  Students who master Ray’s through Ray’s Higher Arithmetic, will easily out think and out calculate any student who slogged through a current “standards-based” text series to the pre-algebra level.  It is doubtful that most college graduates could do many of the exercises in Ray’s Higher Arithmetic, even with the help of a calculator, which of course hadn’t been invented when Ray’s was published!  Dr. Ruth Beechick has written a Parent-Teacher Guide for Ray’s New Arithmetics, which is most helpful.  The Ray’s Arithmetic Series has been reprinted by Mott Media and is also available free on-line through a Google search.  

We also recommend Math-It and Pre-Math-It and have included them in The Game Curriculum because they are part solitaire games, part parent guide to teaching math facts and calculation.  Math-It contains and teaches many of the amazing math “tricks” our ancestors learned from Ray’s Arithmetic. These wonderful tools have been long forgotten because they have been deleted from today’s texts.  It is also possible to use Math-It alone with a cheap workbook or downloaded worksheets for practicing the concepts.  Math-It includes the higher math concepts (national standards) of our modern texts, but these are all in the parent guide and are not used in the solitaire games.  You can ignore them if they are confusing to your child.

Whether you use one of the programs above or a modern text, The Game Curriculum offers a way to learn basic arithmetic facts and concepts easily and painlessly without boring worksheets and fruitless flash-card drill.  When children (or adults) are bored, learning is minimized. Flash-cards are the most inefficient way to learn something new. They can be useful for some learning styles for review but they are agonizingly slow for initial learning unless they include mnemonics utilizing several learning modalities (such as the Bornstein Multiplication Memorizer cards).  Choose a few games that emphasize the concept(s) your child is learning and play them frequently. Keep it fun and interesting; never let it become a chore.  Switch out games to provide variety.   Remember, you can use ordinary playing cards and dice to practice (drill) many math concepts in a game format. 

Cuisenaire Rods are a very helpful complement to any math book or program to clarify concepts and help students who are very visual and kinesthetic.  They give learners who struggle to understand numbers, a concrete example. Use them to illustrate math problems and work them with the rods.  Do this for as long as your student needs the rods. When they are no longer needed, your student will cease to use them for that type of problem. Put them away until they are needed for a new concept.

 Many of you will be nervous about abandoning modern textbooks and National Standards.  Please take a look at the facts. Many Americans have to hire tutors and send their children to math tutoring centers to acquire the skills our grandparents gained in one-room schoolhouses and taught by an eighth grade graduate!  Our modern math teaching methods are toxic to children’s brains and no amount of glitz, pomp and show will change that. If you are math-challenged yourself, don’t despair. You can learn many things right with your children. Math was invented to make life easier for people.  It is logical and easy to understand when taught in a well-reasoned sequence that allows children to learn at their own pace.