Harry Wong
Dec 2017
Vol 14 No 4

Urgent Math Crisis in our Nation: Basic Math Deficits Affect Student Performance in High School Physics and Chemistry

By Stewart Brekke

There’s an arithmetic crisis in the schools of our country.  Numbers of students come from the elementary to high schools unable to do long and short division, problems involving fractions and decimals, and are deficient in basic math facts such as the result of dividing a number into zero.

Having deficits in basic arithmetic makes it difficult for that student to go on in math and to succeed in subjects such as physics and chemistry since these high school subjects require a thorough command of at least arithmetic and algebra.  We therefore must try to remedy this serious situation in our urban schools.

I taught physics and math in an inner-city school.  One year I taught only math and I could see why there is little physics and chemistry being taught in the inner-city schools.  The students often cannot do mathematics.  I taught approximately 120 students in some form of high- school math, and many of them have come out of elementary school not knowing fractions and decimals, let alone other basic math skills and facts such as short division, dividing a number into zero or even knowing how to divide.  Other teachers had told me this situation has existed for years.

Extrapolating to other situations in our system, I would estimate that we may now have over 100,000 high-school students who do not know fractions and decimals well enough to do high-school physics and chemistry successfully, let alone go on to college and pass a physics or chemistry  course.  At one time, almost every student in high school in our system took a physics course, and physics was offered in every school.  A long time physics teacher told me that he is lucky to have a position teaching physical science.  Another physics teacher told me that students cannot hack the math in physics and now it is no longer offered at his high school.   In this situation, I blame the math problems on the elementary schools.

Without basic skills in math, high school students cannot do high school or college physics. or chemistry, courses which lead to well paying jobs and equality of opportunity.

When I was teaching, the school body was African-American.  I taught many students with good minds who will probably go nowhere because of their poor math background; who will not pass employment tests, ACTs or SATs; and who will score low on IQ tests just because of a lack of skills in elementary-school mathematics. Many of my former students can understand the procedure for passing a physics or chemistry course by doing problems, mainly applying formulas.  But they give up when confronted with a decimal or fraction in the calculations.   They say that do not know how to do the problem, even though they really do, they just cannot use decimals or fractions.

I would venture to say  that this situation exists in all the major cities in the U.S. If not successful in high-school math and physics, students will not take college physics unless required to do so.  I therefore trace the decline in high school and college physics in part to a math anxiety generated by the elementary schools in the cities.

When I started teaching physics and math, I was appalled by the lack of competency with fractions and decimals displayed by some of the inner city students.  One of the most disheartening experiences I had then was helping a young student do a problem in synthetic division.  He knew what to do with the numbers and how to use an appropriate algorithm.  Tragically, when it came to the fraction part of this problem, he stopped and told me he couldn’t do the problem.  However, this was not true, he could do the problem.  Only he couldn’t do the fraction part of the problem.  Since that time, I had seen many cases of this type in physics, chemistry and algebra where an inner city student could do an advanced math or physics problem only to be short-circuited by a lack of basic math knowledge.  From my readings and TV viewing, it was clear to me that this problem may be common in many urban as well as in suburban schools across the nation.  Certainly those of us involved in the teaching of math and science cannot let this situation continue.

Part of the problem, I believe, is that while the lower grades place a great deal of emphasis on developing reading skills, not enough stress is placed upon developing basic skills in arithmetic, such as fractions, decimals, and percents.  The solution may be for local districts to mandate more mathematics time during the school day. Students in Japanese elementary schools spend two to three times what the average American student spends on mathematics, with well-known results. Japanese students excel over American students, even in the elementary grades. More time spent on basic arithmetic will mean better performance for all students, in physics and chemistry.  Since major educational policy is determined at the state level, efforts should be made to contact state legislators to require more classroom time to be spent on learning mathematics.  While comprehensive reading skills are important, a good command of mathematics is vital for survival in a modern technological society.

Another part of the problem, I believe, comes from lack of a proper foundation at home.  I have been in kindergarten and first grade classes where the youngsters did not know how to count to ten or to recite the alphabet.  Not knowing how to count makes it difficult to form a good basis for mathematics, especially if the whole class is in the position where it cannot recognize numerical symbols.  Teachers cannot effectively reach that many mathematically deficient students.

It is not that parents do not care, for, on the whole, I have seen them show deep concern about their children’s education, but that many of these parents do not take the time to teach their children number facts nor reading skills.  These parents must be informed early that their child’s success in school means that they must start educating their children before they enter kindergarten.  This may require a publicity campaign by the local school districts of the cities and suburban areas that have minority populations focusing upon educating the child with basics before the child first enters school.  Recently, an education professor visited our system in Chicago and was shocked that these young children could not count to ten in the second grade.  We deal with this arithmetic crises every day and thousands of inner city and suburban children will have their upward potential cut short by this lack of pre-school arithmetic education.

To deal with the students already past elementary school, we must offer some kind of remediation for this fraction, decimal, percent, and division gap in their backgrounds.  Surprisingly, quite a few young students can do algebra, but do not have a good command of fractions and decimals.  Most of the algebra problems in high school texts mainly require facility with whole numbers.

Also, even slow learners can  often do abstract algebra problems.  However, as the student gets higher in high school, he/she begins to have problems because of the arithmetic deficit and his/her potential grows increasingly circumscribed.  One chemistry teacher said his class often degenerated into an arithmetic class because of this deficit.  Now that calculators are now more inexpensive than in that past, it is easier for students to learn chemistry and physics, but the problem remains.  Careers in science, engineering, and math are unreachable unless the arithmetic deficit is overcome. I try to close this gap by giving many algebra type problems that involve decimals and fractions even though I teach high school physics.   Thus the student must learn their fractions, decimals, and algebra as they do physics, chemistry, algebra and geometry.   I make sure however, that the students can always get help in solving the problems so that their physics and chemistry grade will not suffer because of lack of facility with arithmetic skills.

Finally, we in the high schools know that the elementary teachers have problems of their own with fractions and decimals.  The requirement for an elementary certificate in our state is a few mathematics courses. Perhaps, other states have similar requirements.

We must require more mathematics of our elementary teachers so that they have enough facility with the subject to impart some kind of competence to our young students.  When in college, the elementary teacher often takes a special course that satisfies the one or two course requirement.  The course is usually watered down and the result is a poor math education for our elementary students.

We must insist upon more math for our elementary teachers and this can be done by contacting our state officials.  Not only will inner city mathematics and science instructing improve, but also the instruction for all students in mathematics will become better.  With greater facility in basic math skills, success in physics and chemistry will be enhanced as well as in advanced mathematics.

More students will voluntarily take physics and chemistry in high school, because the arithmetic deficit will be overcome and more success in physics and chemistry will result.  The word will get around that it is possible to do well in these courses since command of algebra depends upon knowing arithmetic, in general.  And command of algebra by more students will enhance success in high school and college physics, chemistry and engineering since the student will have mastery of the mathematics “language” used in these courses. In this manner the lives of our students will be enhanced through good careers in the sciences, engineering and medical fields.



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