The Mathematical Death March

26 Feb


I hope my co-teacher doesn’t see this.  But in case she does, I’ll say here what I’ve already told her and the other pre-calc teacher with whom I share (virtual) classroom space: They do a superb job at teaching students and accommodating my lack of mathematical prowess.  They are amazing teachers, and the most wonderful co-teachers anyone could ask for.  They are top notch people who love students and love what they teach.  Which is to say, they love math.

I do not love math.  But I do give the math teachers that I have co-taught with high marks for moving me into a space where I don’t hate it.  Much.  This is high praise, considering where I started several years ago.  I have almost always hated math.  And most of my caseload students hate math as well as most of my fellow special education teachers.  Fleeing a math-intense curriculum is one reason many of us became special educators.  We loved teaching, and loved kids and some of us even loved science.  But we hated math.

I’m currently lobbying to create and sponsor a “I Hate Math” club for our school.  The idea is to have a club that is like a support group akin to those support groups for people having to go through chemotherapy.  We don’t like it, but we have to do it.  We have to endure, and we have to survive.  And we can do it much better if we do it together rather than fall apart.  We can become math survivors.

I’m pretty well qualified for such an endeavor because not only do I have a lot of anxiety, fear, loathing and anger toward the subject, I’m also somewhat compelled to be around it more than I would like.  Which is to say, almost all the time.  This describes a lot of the students I encounter in our schools and in my own family.  Outside of math teachers, engineers and a few other oddballs, I’m very hard pressed to to find people who really and truly like mathematics.  There are a few of us who like logical thinking and may enjoy an occasional mathematical puzzle (Sudoku anyone?) but when we start talking about calculating slope, synthetic division, imaginary numbers, cosines and radians we start entering that dark distasteful zone that begins putting people off.  It can even have many of the same symptoms as anxiety due to chemotherapy.  I’ve talked to students who became physically ill every day before entering their math classes.  Math phobia is a real thing to many, many students.

I like how a math educator, Dan Meyer, introduced his Ted Talk :

“I sell a product to a market that doesn’t want it but is forced by law to buy it.”

Almost every school teacher could identify to this on some level, but math teachers are especially vulnerable to being abused by students who hate their subject.  I might have abused a math teacher or two in my own way back in the day. And right now, wherever they are, they are having a wry smile at my expense.  I would never have predicted that I would be near a math classroom at any time after graduation and now I get to endure much of what my old math teachers did.

But for all my discomfort with the subject during my own middle and high school years, it is no where near what today’s students are being subjected to.


The above is an image of the math curriculum for a school in another state, but closely matches what is in place in the state of Georgia and several other states.  By the time a student is in 11th or 12th grade, they are expected to be taking either pre-calculus or calculus.  For those of you with children in school, let that settle for a minute.  There is no alternate plan here.  This IS the state curriculum.

Recently, the state of Georgia did announce a change in its sequence that does offer a less daunting option and you can see the pdf here.  I will applaud a move in the right direction, especially for our students with disabilities.  However, Algebra II is still required in order to get a high school diploma in the state of Georgia. And where is consumer math?

While researching for this post, I looked for articles and discourse on this topic and found a dearth of articles addressing the question of whether or not we should be requiring every high school student to master Algebra II (let alone pre-calculus) in order to get a high school diploma.  The best one that I could find was a report issued by the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) that issued a report looking at the requirements for admission into community colleges back in 2013.  They had this to say about the high school math curriculum currently being pushed by most states:

“Mastery of Algebra II is widely thought to be a prerequisite for success in college and careers. Our research shows that that is not so… Based on our data, one cannot make the case that high school graduates must be proficient in Algebra II to be ready for college and careers. The high school mathematics curriculum is now centered on the teaching of a sequence of courses leading to calculus that includes Geometry, Algebra II, Pre-Calculus and Calculus. However, fewer than five percent of American workers and an even smaller percentage of community college students will ever need to master the courses in this sequence in their college or in the workplace… they should not be required courses in our high schools. To require these courses in high school is to deny to many students the opportunity to graduate high school because they have not mastered a sequence of mathematics courses they will never need. In the face of these findings, the policy of requiring a passing score on an Algebra II exam for high school graduation simply cannot be justified.”

The odd thing about this report is that it is written in support of the Common core Curriculum which puts me in a very odd place.  I’m not a fan of the Common Core, largely for reasons that you can watch in this documentary on the subject.

I have experience with this on 3 different levels: as a person who is mathematically challenged, as a parent and as a teacher of students with disabilities.

As a person who was difficult to motivate during his middle school years, especially in the area of mathematics, I am very thankful I grew up when I did.  Namely that I was not required to master Algebra II in order to graduate high school or even college.  If that were the case, I would not have a college degree, let alone a Master’s degree, and it might be doubtful I would have gotten through high school.  I would have done what I see more and more of the students that I teach do: I would have quit.  I have no doubt in my mind that I would have taken this option.  I started out well enough, getting an ‘A’ in my first quarter of Algebra I.  Next Quarter I got a B, and then I got a ‘C’ and then I got a ‘D’.  In Geometry I started with a ‘B’ my first quarter, then a ‘C’ and then…well I finished the second semester with an ‘F’.  A lot of this was due to motivation, but in those days there was an option to make up that math credit by taking business math, which I did.  It was a class that was infinitely more fun and practical where I learned about amortization and interest rates and where I was the one to figure out how to program the school’s new Apple I computer to do my homework.  I loved computers back then and taught the thing how to calculate my interest homework.  Visicalc hadn’t been invented yet, or at least no one I knew had heard of it.

Now I have a son of my own who, unfortunately, has inherited his father’s rich loathing of math.  But he has a more determined mother than I did, and he’s probably going to finish with an ‘A’.  However that ‘A’ in Algebra I is probably taking 10 years off of my wife’s life in the form of all the frustration and the constant strife and battling.  He still has 3 more years to go and at this rate, I might need to put an extra life insurance policy on my wife.  At the very least, I’m going to be bound to staying in a job with good health insurance.

Like so many of my students, my son has modest goals for his future.  If he were 10 years younger, he would not even be on track for a regular education diploma much less doing and succeeding in algebra I.  In this way, inclusion has been a good thing for many students and does challenge and offer them a good education.  However the focus on college readiness is going to doom a lot of the students who have less determined or educated parents.  He could learn and be very good at a trade and really that’s all he wants to do.  He wants a good job that allows him to afford his appetite for all things having to do with model railroading.  However, there are very few vocational programs in high schools anymore.  The arts have also been marginalized because of the pressure generated by the testing culture.

The bottom line for many of our students is that the bar for a high school diploma has been raised to such an extent, especially with the math curriculum, that too many of them are not going to make it.  They will get discouraged and quit all because of a barrier that has been put in place needlessly.  According to the NCEE study, less than 5% of all students will require much more than  Algebra I in order to function well in their jobs and careers.

I’m currently engaged in a bit of a battle, trying to save as many of my students as possible, and enable them to reach that finish line.  They want to be mechanics, welders, seamstresses, healthcare workers, hair dressers, farmers and truck drivers.  These are all skilled positions and careers where they will need some additional post-secondary training.  But in order to get that they are faced with a stark and scary road that leads through Algebra II and possibly pre-calculus.  They struggle massively just to make it through coordinate algebra, which is even harder than the algebra that I had in 9th grade.  The pass rates on the End Of Course tests in math in the state of Georgia are absolutely dismal, with 60-70% of all students taking the exam failing it.  For students with disabilities, the failure rate is closer to 90%.  There is a provision for students with disabilities in Georgia to follow an alternate curriculum that can rescue them from the Algebra II trap.  However, there seems to be some question among some districts as to how to apply this, and some are very slow in applying it.  In the meantime, the river of students continues to flow through the system and many of them are opting out by dropping out.  Applying this rule fairly early on when it is obvious to the parents, the student, the teacher and the IEP team that this student will quit or fail school before succeeding in Algebra II can give them an early lifeline in helping to persevere through the rest of the courses.  Knowing that there is an end point that doesn’t have to end in a needless mathematical death march can help keep the doors open for many of our students.

5 Responses to “The Mathematical Death March”

  1. Marty at 9:39 pm #

    You don’t need to know geography either. Why does a chemist or Roofer need to know where Paraguay is? So, let’s take geography out of the curriculum.

    Anyone need to know how government works who doesn’t want to be a politician? Not really. Less than half of people even bother to vote and off year elections are sometimes <10%. And since when did a plumber need to know who the 4th or even 1st president was? When was a math teacher last quizzed on that?

    So we need to definitely dump U.S. history and government. What a waste of time!

    English?! Are you kidding me? Seems like most people in high school have no problems speaking English. Why are you wasting time teaching something everyone knows? Since when is analyzing a Shakespearean play needed for anything useful? What!? Is a cop going to quote Romeo and Juliet to stop crime?

    And we all know, "Only scientists need to know science . . . "

    So, now that you're done hating on math, allow me to explain why math education is difficult and important.

    If I take some learning disabled children, separate them from society and prevent them ever hearing or seeing language. By the time they hit their teens they will have developed their own language all by themselves. We know this because it has been done. It is completely natural ability of humans to form language and communicate.

    Now lets take some people and refuse to teach them any math. Normal, regular homo-sapiens. Nothing special about them. By the time they grow to adult-hood, they can't count past 2. This is also shown to be true. It is not a natural ability for human beings to do math. It takes work, effort, and patience to learn math. It takes the same to teach it.

    Math allows you perspective. It adds adds a pattern of thought which is unusual and not based on emotion or feelings.

    I see that you have a loss of this perspective. You wrote a blog piece about 80% on IEPs not long ago. You went into quite some detail about how 80% was bad and it should be 100%. And while clever in it's own way, the post completely missed the problem. It doesn't matter what goal you write down – whether 100%; 80%; 80%, 100% of the time; or whatever. Writing the goal does not, in any way, help the kid in reaching the goal. Write it however you want, translate it to Spanish on Sanskrit, it doesn't matter. The real problem is how to get the child there.

    So a student is having difficulty with math. The teacher is then told to apply modifications to help the student. They are usually something like

    reduce assignment length 30%
    Additional time to do assignments – 1 day

    This is actually the opposite of what is needed, but is a very common type of modification. How is reducing an assignment length going to help a student having difficulty with math? How is being behind a day in math class going to help a student having difficulty with math? It isn't. It will help a kid get rubber stamped, but nothing else. The teacher will gather "evidence" that the goal was reached and rubber stamp it for you. And as for your goal of "whatever", "Who cares?" Do you? If you did, you'd write the following modification.

    One-on-one tutoring with a math teacher twice a week for 45 minutes.

    Oh, wait! That would cost money. And you don't want to upset your boss. Even though it would likely completely solve the problem for half of your specific learning disability kids, one on one just costs too much money. Nowadays, if one only has 10 specific learning disability kids in a class, you're lucky.

    • Marty at 9:58 pm #

      I did need to add a couple of points.

      I’ve recently left the math department at our school, but this year “we” finally succeeded in getting Algebra 1 taken completely out of eight grade and moved to 9th grade. Before I left the math department, I finally got precalculus replacement course introduced which is more helpful to students who aren’t going to take precalculus. It’s in its 3rd year. Crossing my fingers on that one. It helps to have the true precalculus students separate.

      At one point administrators were asking if they could teach geometry in the 8th grade. To which I started to respond with, “why not teach high school English II in the 8th grade?”

      There is this insane keeping up with the Jones’s that exists in Jr. High Math curriculum which makes no sense as it completely dissipates by the time the student reaches high school.

      • Daniel Dage at 1:32 am #

        Thanks for reading and commenting, Marty!
        I’m not hating on math, just the more abstract, high level math especially for those who struggle mightily just to master basic algebra. As you allude to in your second comment, there should be a some sanity in just how far it is taken. I think more people are starting to see this, but it takes time to undo the damage caused by trying to stuff everyone in the same-sized box. The math curriculum has slid at least 2 years and now your middle schoolers are pushed towards standards that used to be taught in 9th grade. So when your 8th graders fall on their face trying to do algebra, they think they aren’t good at math when they might just need some additional maturity. So when they reach high school they eventually get to a point where they say “I’ve had it! I’m done!” Math might be devoid of emotion, but the perseverance necessary to learn it isn’t.

  2. royyman32 at 3:56 am #

    As a person who studies math at a higher level I agree with most of your points. I believe that cramming so much material into requirement really hurts comprehension and intimidates students. Lower standards might actually get the average student interested. There are plenty of opportunities for people able and interested.

  3. mathtuition88 at 2:58 am #

    Sorry to hear that math has caused so much distress for you..
    Please subscribe to my math blog for a fun, no-stress newsletter of math and education news!

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