The culture problem won’t be easy to solve. A number of Florida college students interviewed for this series, including Wendy Pedroso, quickly volunteered that they “hate” math. Many state public school students never master basic math skills early in their education, causing them to struggle throughout their educational career.
Jakeisha Thompson, an MDC math instructor at the downtown Miami campus, sees it every day.
“Many of them have had a hatred for math for as long as they can remember,” Thompson said. “And it goes all the way back to elementary school.”
‘A creative discipline’
One answer lies in re-thinking how math is taught in K-12 schools, experts say. Math is a challenging subject that requires critical-thinking skills — traits not often emphasized and developed in the U.S. public school system, unlike in China and Japan.
How teachers approach math lessons also is crucial, because they need to make lessons interesting to engage students and help them succeed. Teaching techniques such as memorization and repetition have contributed to math’s reputation as a dreadful subject in the U.S., said Richard Rusczyk, founder of Art of Problem Solving, a California school that focuses on creating interactive educational opportunities for avid math students.
“Math is a creative discipline,” Rusczyk said. “It’s not fun if you have to memorize it, and that way it’s not easy to learn.”
Rusczyk said many students who struggle with math throughout their K-12 careers never mastered the basic skills.
“Sometimes it’s not algebra but the fact that the student never learned how to deal with fractions,” he said.
The use of calculators in classrooms is part of the problem. Students are allowed to use calculators when taking the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT – the test they must pass to graduate.
Many students are using calculators before they’ve mastered basic math skills, said Casanova de Franco, the MDC remedial math professor.
“Calculators are good when you know how to do everything,” Casanova de Franco said. “But it shouldn’t be used to supplement thinking.”
Also, high school math programs are not geared toward college readiness. The FCAT, for example, tests only 10th-grade level math skills. The Florida Department of Education says a new test coming in a couple of years will be more aligned to college standards. This is the last year students will be allowed to graduate without taking more advanced classes.
But Katerine Santana, who teaches Algebra 2 at Miami Northwestern Senior High, says that alone won’t solve the problem.
Like professor Casanova de Franco, she said many of her students can’t add or subtract. This poses a challenge for math teachers because students who have fallen behind and lack foundational skills tend to lose interest.
“Early on, if we instill that math is part of our daily life, I think that kids are going to have more of a positive attitude towards it,” Santana said.