Lancaster County students tend to be better at math than their peers across Pennsylvania. But that’s small solace. Because, “according to an analysis of Pennsylvania standardized test scores from 2015 to 2019, less than half of the county’s students in grades three through eight are at least proficient in math,” LNP’s Alex Geli reported Tuesday, Nov. 5. Proficiency rates for the math section of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment have been in the mid-40% range in Lancaster County. Being stuck at that level, experts say, represents a crisis for our county — along with the rest of the state and the nation.
Math is cool.
It’s relevant to our everyday lives.
That’s the absolute truth. But the other reality is that math has been stuck in a yearslong cycle of terrible and inaccurate public perception. Instead of the above, this is what we hear far too often from our young people:
Math is boring.
Math is too hard.
Everyone does badly in math.
Math isn’t anything we need in our daily lives.
We must all work to change that negative narrative and convey to today’s students, at all grade levels, the importance of math.
The stakes are high.
“If our community continues to normalize lack of math proficiency among K-12 students, we shouldn’t be surprised when our children fail to thrive in an increasingly global economy,” Sandy Strunk, executive director of the Lancaster County STEM Alliance, told Geli. (STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and math.)
Some of the best and most lucrative jobs for the upcoming generation will require good math skills. That’s one marketing point we can stress to young people. If they’re worried about what jobs will be available after high school or college, they should focus on math and science. Industries will always have room for people who excel in those skills.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, mathematical science occupations are projected to grow 28% from 2014 to 2024, compared to projected growth of 6.5% for all occupations. And locally, Geli wrote, “computer and mathematical occupations are among the fastest growing careers at 12%.” That’s according to the Lancaster County Workforce Development Board.
As we noted, some of the narrative we must push back against involves the wrongheaded ideas that nobody likes math, that everyone struggles with math, and that being bad at math is just part of the shared punchline for everyone who goes through the education system.
But the joke’s on all of us if we can’t change that view.
“It’s the complacency that we have to battle,” Strunk said. “And we have to stop letting it be cute, especially for women.”
Part of it, too, must be good, old-fashioned buckling down. Learning math requires memorization, repetition and focus. It can still be fun, too, but there is no substitute for doing the work needed to acquire skills and knowledge.
Parents can do their part by making sure students’ homework is completed and by supporting the goals that teachers establish. (And have students put down the calculators, notes Bill Griscom, president of Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology. He firmly believes that an over-reliance on calculators, especially at a young age, does no favors to students who must learn the basics by doing the work themselves.)
“We need to challenge students with harder work, and we need to not make exceptions for not doing well,” Penn Manor Superintendent Mike Leichliter told Geli. “We owe it to the future of our country and our economy to make sure students are graduating with high-quality skills.”
We applaud creative regional efforts to make math more appealing to today’s students. Geli notes some of them: “Esports, or competitive video gaming; teacher externships at companies such as High, CNH Industrial and Eurofins; and showcases like the annual STEMathon at the Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13.”
We could criticize young peoples’ obsession with video games — or, as a much better approach, we can lean into that interest and use it as an entry point to math education and career exploration. In September, the LNP Editorial Board hailed the growth of esports as a positive development, writing that “anything that enhances STEM and other learning while allowing students to participate in an activity they love — and even earn college scholarships in the process — is a win-win in our book.”
We praised the Manheim Township-based Emerald Foundation, which this year gave 15 area schools $3,000 each to help create an esports club, purchase technology and hire a general manager. It was able to do that because it was granted $500,000 from the state Department of Education to promote esports and STEM learning.
There are other praiseworthy efforts that Geli noted in last week’s article. Archie’s Math was created by Lancaster Science Factory founder Jim Bunting. It is, Geli writes, “Pennsylvania’s first traveling math lab, featuring nearly two dozen hands-on exhibits for kids in kindergarten through grade six. It offers interactive lessons on everything from geometric shapes to the Pythagorean theorem.”
And it seems to be changing attitudes. In a survey of 200 Lancaster city students who experienced Archie’s Math, 65% of students who responded “I don’t like math” before using the exhibits changed their response to “I like math” afterward.
That’s a great equation for changing hearts and minds about math. And we think there must be plenty of other great ideas out there for getting students of all age levels enthused about math.
Part of it is that we should talk to our kids — at the dinner table, during trips, etc. — about the relevance of math in our own lives. About how we use math we learned in school to chart our finances, find bargains when shopping, understand loans, follow recipes, make travel plans and much more. Sports statistics, we’ve found, are also a great entry point for discussing all sorts of useful math concepts that can be applied elsewhere in life.
If you have ideas or experiences in successfully engaging young people with math — making it enjoyable and not something to fear or dread — we’d love to hear from you in a letter to the editor. Let’s share our best ideas.
Working together, we can change the negative perception that exists around math and, by doing so, create better futures for the next generation.
“Every kid in elementary school is a smart, brilliant, curious kid,” Bunting told Geli. “They’re eager to learn. They’re eager to succeed. They just need encouragement, some success, a little patience, and, gosh, it’s just a wonderful thing.”
We must spread the word: Math is wonderful.