Special Report

How Parents and Schools Can Work Together to Keep Math Learning on Track

By Christina A. Samuels — December 02, 2020 8 min read
Jen Kulak and her daughter Maureen, 10, do schoolwork at their home in Lansdale, Pa. Kulak has spotted some gaps in her daughter’s math knowledge since she started remote schooling.
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When the coronavirus pandemic forced schools to abruptly switch to distance learning, many parents found themselves taking on a teaching role—including helping their children with math, a subject many adults face with dread.

Even grownups who were math whizzes when they were in school may find themselves perplexed by modern math curricula, which often downplay the importance of pure number crunching in favor of deeper conceptual understanding.

But in this time of disrupted traditional instruction, it’s more important than ever for parents and teachers to work together to support their children’s math learning.

Such collaboration doesn’t require turning parents into math experts, classroom teachers say. Some useful steps families can take:

  • Staying in touch with the teacher (and nudging older students to seek help when it’s offered).
  • Encouraging children to talk through their math assignments as a check on understanding.
  • Embracing informal math thinking, such as through games that focus on counting or patterns.

Creating ‘Positive Math Identities’

Most important, educators say, is keeping in mind that we are in a uniquely stressful time for families and for educators. According to a survey of school district leaders conducted by the EdWeek Research Center, 88 percent of district leaders say their schools are engaged in distance learning at least part of the time—and that’s likely to rise as coronavirus cases surge this winter. Many families are still struggling to make remote instruction work, particularly if they don’t have access to computers, the internet, or adults in the home who can supervise distance learning.

That means the children who are showing up for remote learning have varying levels of support. If it takes a little longer for a lesson to sink in under such challenging circumstances, that’s OK, too.

“I cannot have the same expectations for all my kids and every family because it’s just not fair,” said Marian Dingle, an elementary teacher in DeKalb County, Ga., who has focused her career on math instruction and equity. “Is math instruction really important, or is it just survival?”

Parents + Teachers = Math Progress

In this time of disrupted education, it’s even more important for teachers and parents to work together to support students. But when it comes to math, too many parents worry—many say unnecessarily—that their skills aren’t up to par. Educators offered several suggestions for ways that teachers can build a strong partnership with families.

  • Keep the lines of communication open. Both parents and teachers should be encouraged to talk with one another, not just about subjects that may need work, but on skills that the student is doing well.
  • Prompt parents to talk to their children about math. Modern-day math instruction currently prioritizes conceptual understanding of math, rather than just grinding through pages of calculations. If parents don’t understand the math themselves, they can ask their child to explain to them what they are learning.
  • Do the work. Many students and families are still struggling to access distance learning, and educators need to understand that. But if possible, students need to attend class and take advantage of any extra learning opportunities that are available to them.
  • Embrace the struggle. Parents may wish to jump in to help their child who is having problems with an assignment, but it’s normal for students to struggle at first with new concepts.
  • Use technology where it makes sense. Many schools use math platforms that offer extra practice opportunities for students. Some teachers are also encouraging students to upload real-world assignments involving math. Technology tools can make math more engaging.
  • Allow “space and grace.” These are extraordinarily challenging times, for children, parents, and teachers, and adding one more project on families can be overwhelming. Games, household activities, puzzles, and other fun activities can help support math learning as well without adding another burden to stressed families.

Source: Education Week

Trena Wilkerson, a professor of math education at Baylor University and the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, said, “We need to give parents and students and families a little space and grace.” Where parents can lend “critical” support is in helping their children develop a positive math identity, meaning they believe they are capable of success in the subject, she said.
But for many parents, that’s a challenging task.

Jen Kulak, a mother in suburban Philadelphia, is trying to keep the importance of encouragement in mind. On an average remote learning day, Kulak’s daughter Maureen whips through her 5th grade math lessons. But when Kulak slows her daughter down and asks her to walk through each problem, she spots gaps in her child’s math knowledge that distance learning has failed to fill. For example, her daughter has computational skills—but struggles to figure out how to use those skills to solve word problems, particularly if they involve multiple steps.

“I’m going to look into getting a tutor because there’s just some fundamental stuff she’s not getting,” said Kulak, whose daughter attends school in the North Penn district. And there doesn’t seem to be much time spent on review; the class just moves on to the next set of assignments.

“The hard part is, I don’t know if it’s the teaching methods, if it’s remote [learning], if it’s the kid, if it’s everything together,” Kulak said.

Still, she said, “I try not to be too hard on myself, and I’m trying not to be too hard on Maureen.”
Jules Devito, who lives in Riverhead, N.Y., remembers her own struggles with math in school when she works with her son Callum, a 2nd grader in the Riverhead Central district. Math instruction through distance learning is fairly brief, she said, and the students don’t always have enough time to get their questions answered.

“When I sit down to help him, all of a sudden, he can’t count. I say, ‘You know you literally just did it with your teacher—how can you not know what 4 plus 5 is?’ ”

Like Kulak, Devito said she’s not sure whether there’s truly a gap in knowledge or if her son might just be a little impatient doing extra work with her when he’d rather be playing.

Devito’s main concern is that she doesn’t want her child to end this year hating the subject.

“I don’t even want to ask the school and the teachers more because there’s so much on them already. They’re already so overworked and confused like everyone else,” she said. “It’s just one year, it’s only 2nd grade. He’ll catch up, we just have to make it through this year.”

Technology as a Tool

While these parents offer a mixed view of remote math instruction, they’re both doing one essential activity: encouraging their children to do the work. Some early research suggests that can make a difference in children’s math progress during these unusual times.

The Opportunity Insights Economic Tracker, developed by economists at Harvard and Brown universities, has been tracking the impact of the pandemic on multiple facets of American life. To get a glimpse of school impact, they’ve used anonymized data collected from Zearn, a K-5 math curriculum that offers both in-person and online learning. Zearn serves 1 in 4 elementary students around the country.

Soon after the pandemic started, there was a dramatic shift in who was using the platform: Usage and progress among children in schools located in low-income areas plummeted, while children in higher-income areas ramped up their participation and progress in the platform. That gap has now closed somewhat; there’s only a 10-percentage-point difference in usage among children in high and low-income areas.

Maureen Kulak, 10, works on her schoolwork at the dining room table. Maureen has been remote learning at home due to the pandemic.

But even when the gap was the largest, some schools in low-income areas bucked the trend, said Shalinee Sharma, Zearn’s founder and chief executive officer. She believes one factor was the strength of parent outreach in those districts. Some districts in low-income areas managed to get a message to parents that they should focus on getting their children on the platform regularly.

Mastery Schools, a network of charter schools serving 14,000 students in Philadelphia and Camden, N.J., was one of the systems that managed to maintain math participation in the spring. While there was a noticeable dip in students logging on during the first week of closures in March, the system quickly recovered to its previous levels of usage in the following weeks. Nationally, other schools serving similarly low-income areas saw a dip in usage that stayed low.

Some of Mastery’s outreach was simply about making sure parents had one point of contact to get questions answered about their child’s education in general, not just math, said Ashley Baldwin, the network’s deputy chief of science, technology, engineering and math. “The communication was already there,” she said.

And the network was also able to push out an important message to parents: Keep your child actively involved in the math platform. “If nothing else, do this,” said Katelyn McGrath, the director of elementary mathematics for Mastery.

Sharma believes that more districts are seeing the value of focused parent outreach. Districts such as West Baton Rouge in Louisiana are pointing parents directly to Zearn resources online. Educators from Hartford, Conn., schools have made home visits to encourage use of platforms such as Zearn and iReady.

“We can’t make people become math teachers. What a parent can do is say, ‘Sweetie, did you log in and get a badge on Zearn?’” Sharma said. (A badge signifies a completed set of practice problems.)
“That’s what technology enables. A parent can monitor progress, but not get into, ‘is the math right or wrong?’ That’s what we can let a computer do.”

Technology, in the form of short video clips, can also be used by parents to share examples of how well their children understand a lesson. “I spent some time talking with families about how they could be partners with me in documenting what kids are doing and trying,” said Kateri Thunder, a prekindergarten teacher and math specialist at Charlottesville, Va., schools. She’s talked with families before about sharing their child’s progress, but with the explicit encouragement to parents to create short videos of their child at work, “somehow that communication was different this time, and successful for us.”

Allow Students to Struggle

Finally, parents can also allow their children to struggle a little bit, resisting the urge to come to the rescue, said Kurt Salisbury, the coordinator of secondary mathematics for Midway ISD in Waco, Texas.
“We want them to develop their problem-solving skills. That’s a skill that’s transferable,” he said. “If you solve the problem for them, you’ve hurt their long-term growth as a mathematical thinker. We really want students to be thinking about mathematical ideas, not just doing computational stuff.” And that’s a balancing act for teachers as well.

Joanna Stevens, a high school math teacher in Garrard County, Ky., borrowed an idea from another teacher: At the beginning of the school year, she asked students to learn a new skill, like a card trick or a new dance.

Then she asked the students to describe how they taught themselves that skill. Most talked about how they had to watch videos more than once, practice multiple times, or even look for other resources to help them. The point, Stevens said, is that learning new math skills will take the same effort; families can help reinforce that point to their children.

“I’ve tried to relate that to parents. They might have to watch the lesson twice. They might have to watch a Khan Academy video. We have to focus on the persevering,” she said.

And, like NCTM’s Wilkerson, she said that this year requires a lot of grace, and a lot of communication.
“I know it’s hard, it’s stressful, and it’s not fair. We just have to try,” Stevens said.

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