Ari Armstrong, Education, Gold Dome, Uncategorized

Armstrong: Colorado public schools failing kids on math

Earth shown on an Imax screen as photographed from the International Space Station is stunning. My family got to meet Colorado-tied astronauts Jessica Watkins and Kjell Lindgren recently at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, where they reviewed their work on the station.

Watkins grew up in Lafayette and graduated from Fairview High School before eventually earning her doctorate in geology. Lindgren attended the Air Force Academy and then studied medicine at Colorado State and the University of Colorado.

In many ways, Colorado is on the forefront of science and technology. Yet, although some students excel in science and math, many students are effectively locked out of a career in science because schools fail to teach them math, mastery of which is essential for success not only in the natural sciences but in fields such as economics and sociology.

Students left behind

As I’ve reviewed, Colorado schools are failing many kids when it comes to literacy. Only 34% of Colorado eighth graders scored at or above proficiency on the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), while 73% scored at or above a basic level (where students are ranked below basic, basic, proficient, or advanced).

Results are even worse for math. Only 28% of Colorado eighth graders scored at or above proficiency, while 63 scored at or above a basic level. So more than two thirds of students lack proficiency in math, and more than a third bombed the test.

Maybe such poor outcomes are good enough for the Colorado Education Association, but parents should be outraged. True, the pandemic hurt scores, but scores before the pandemic hardly were stellar, with more than a fourth of students scoring below basic.

As with reading, results on math among black and Hispanic students are even worse on average. Whereas 78% of white students scored at or above basic, only 39% of black and 42% of Hispanic students did. Whereas 39% of white students scored at or above proficient, only 10% of black and 11% of Hispanic students did. Those outcomes are shameful. Anyone looking for systemic racism can start by looking at how most minority students fare in the public schools.

The math wars

Performance of the public schools is even worse than the test scores indicate, because many parents turn to private tutors and other outside help to compensate for the catastrophic failures of their kids’ schools.

A big part of the problem, writes Holly Korbey for Ed Post, is that many educators have abandoned nuts-and-bolts mathematics instruction in favor of a touchy-feely “progressive” approach. Korbey talked with various experts. Sarah Powell said, “Just as we know there are foundational skills in reading, there is the same thing in math. Schools have been swayed by sexy practices, but that’s not how people learn.” Daniel Ansari said, “Parents often think their child has a math learning difficulty, when in fact it’s lack of instruction, a lack of practicing math facts.”

“Parents who can afford it [turn] to the billion-dollar tutoring industry,” Korbey writes. “In wealthier schools there is often a shadow education system of explicit instruction and practice happening outside the classroom, provided by tutors and tutoring centers using the research-backed methods,” she continues.

As for the students whose families lack the resources to pay double for education, once for their failing public schools and again for outside help, they are far more likely to fall behind.

My point is not that all schools are failing all students. Some schools are better than others, and specific programs within many schools can be quite good. The best programs in the best schools are excellent. That doesn’t change the fact that many students are not getting a decent education in Colorado’s public schools.

A legislative effort

A new $26 million bipartisan effort, House Bill 23-1231, aims “to make available free optional trainings in evidence-based practices in mathematics,” says the summary. Also: “The bill includes a requirement that elementary and secondary school mathematics teacher candidates of educator preparation programs be trained in evidence-based practices in mathematics.”

It’s a little baffling that it takes an act of the legislature to get teachers to use “evidence-based practices,” but maybe the bill will help. The bill also sets up grant programs. Governor Polis praised the plan. See Chalkbeat for details.

Also, Polis announced the state is helping provide Zearn Math to Colorado students. Zearn is a nonprofit that parents already can access online for free. My family hasn’t used it but at first glance it looks pretty good.

Teaching math at home

Picking up on Korbey’s article, Natalie Wexler writes, “The math ‘wars,’ like the so-called reading wars, go back at least to the 1950s, when progressive educators rebelled against ‘traditionalists’ who favored explicit instruction and memorization of facts.”

Wexler adds, “In math, progressive educators downplayed the need for kids to memorize things like multiplication tables, arguing that it was more important to allow them to discover math concepts for themselves.”

As Wexler argues, the progressives were largely wrong, and students have been paying the price ever since. But they weren’t totally wrong! Many people have a stereotypical image of the traditionalist taskmaster who raps a student’s knuckles for getting the wrong answer. Clearly that sort of traditionalism is bad. There’s something to the progressive idea of student-led learning.

I tutored math for several years, and now I teach math to my second-grade son. I’ve come to see that good math instruction helps make abstract mathematics concrete and intuitive-seeming, guides a student Socratically to figure out the underlying principles, focuses on deep understanding over memorization of processes, and then formalizes the terminology and shorthand rules.

There are many good math programs out there. The program I use successfully with my child is Dimensions Math, a product of Singapore Math. If you as a parent are looking to give your child help in math at home, I highly recommend this program. Indeed, the company has started selling a Home Instructor’s Set by grade level. However, if you know basic math you probably won’t need the instructor books (I don’t use them). For each half-grade level we go through the textbook, the workbook, and the test book, so there are six books per grade.

What I love about Dimensions is how it thoughtfully builds concepts in a slow and deliberate way, taking many passes at an idea to build complexity. For example, we’re currently working on fractions. These are third-grade books but we homeschool, so we work at our own pace. We aim to do around five pages every day.

The materials start simply with shading circles and such. Then we start comparing. Which is greater, one-fifth or one-sixth? Six-sevenths or seven-eighths? We’re working toward common denominators. We’ve also started working with decimals in the context of money, so we’re also working toward converting among fractions, decimals, and percents. This level also gets into area and perimeter of simple figures. Throughout, the many word problems ensure that the student genuinely understands the material and its real-world applications.

Another great program is Beast Academy, which features both graphic novels and online videos. Especially older students often find Khan Academy helpful (and it’s free to users). We were having a little trouble getting the multiplication tables down so I bought a month’s subscription to the Dragonbox Multiplication game app. I’m a big fan of the entire Dragonbox lineup.

My basic advice is don’t let your child believe they’re “no good at math” or they’re “not a math person.” Math is a skill that you learn, not an innate gift. If your child’s school is not getting the job done, you might need to intervene. Math is a key by which your child can open up large vistas of the world, and even of worlds beyond.

Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.


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