ST. LEO, FL – Children attending public schools in Florida and their teachers are trying this year to work their way through learning gaps student may be facing now because of the disruptions the COVID-19 pandemic caused to in-school learning last year. The evidence of that may become clearer as students begin to receive their first report cards for the current academic year.
A possible area for widespread frustration may be in middle grades math. Mathematics becomes harder at that age and level point for many students in normal times, and the COVID-19 interruptions only made it worse. Some regard math as more difficult than other subjects to learn online at that age. And only 37 percent of eighth graders tested passed the statewide math exam given in spring 2021, in fact.
With all those factors in mind, some Saint Leo University educators explained what parents need to know now about navigating middle grades math instruction now.
1. Why is math so concerning? “Middle school math is important because it sets you up for high school,” said Edward LaRose, a Saint Leo University adjunct faculty member education. He began his own career as a high school math teacher, and is now a Hernando County school principal helping his own teachers this year, too.
High school math is important whether students realize it at the time, or not. Students who want to go to college right away know they need to pass math subjects, but in today’s society, high school graduates who do not attend college right away may want to do so at age 22 or 23, LaRose explained. They need to have a math awareness, he said. Add to that the fact that more new jobs are becoming reliant on being able to approach science, math and technology with some skills and confidence.
2. What are students supposed to be learning in middle grades? Middle school math includes learning to reduce fractions, to convert numbers into percentages and back, and to recognize angles and degrees of angles. Those are also skills commonly used in everyday life. In pre-algebra, which students take in eighth or ninth grade, students start learning how to solve for missing elements in equations, and to understand that some values may vary from one problem to another. They also find there can be more than one variable, making things more complex.
Algebra I provides students with more skills, so that they can start solving more equations, and so that they can start graphing results. Geometry introduces spatial awareness, and an understanding of planes, angles and degrees. Algebra II introduces higher-level problems to be solved and graphed.
3. Parents can inadvertently send children the wrong message about math. This has been going on since long before COVID, LaRose said. Many parent-teacher conferences over the years have made it apparent to LaRose that parents can bring their own past difficulties in learning math into their children’s current situations. This is what he means: When a teacher explains to a parent that their child is having difficulty progressing in math skills, it is not unusual to hear something like this: “Oh, it’s OK, I’m bad at math.” By contrast, LaRose said: “Never do you hear a parent say, ‘Oh, it’s OK, I’m bad at reading too.’ ”
LaRose said that attitude is not helpful. Instead, he said, it is important for parents to separate their own anxiety about math from their children’s current experiences.
Dr. Holly Atkins, who oversees the education (teacher-preparation) programs for undergraduates at Saint Leo, seconded LaRose’s advice. “Be careful how you express any of your own negative feelings about math,” she said. Instead, reinforce the belief that students can and will strengthen their math abilities. Advise them that it is normal and expected to make mistakes and eventually, they will figure out the way to find the solution.
Atkins added that adolescent girls have been more likely to become discouraged at math at this grade level, to the detriment of future studies in math and possible career options.
4. Keep in mind possible unresolved challenges from last year. In addition to teaching the material required for the current year, many middle school and high school math teachers see they “need to plug in some holes from last year.” LaRose is helping his teachers map out the specific concepts to cover and review in this year’s adapted curriculum.
5. In-person learning this year has created new challenges. Though Florida school districts have physically reopened schools this year instead of sending classes of children home to learn online this year, the continued spread of COVID-19 is causing attendance issue. Children who have become sick or exposed have to go home, into quarantine periods that last 10 days or so. When they return, they are that many days behind classmates who have moved on to new lessons.
So, a single math classroom may have students working at three different stages in the curriculum, LaRose said. He talks about this with the teachers he supervises at Weeki Wachee High School. “The pandemic is forcing our hand to get better at differentiated learning (being prepared for children working at varying unit levels.) It’s easy to say but hard to do. It requires going back over work to fill in gaps, [distribute] missed material, and include reviews,” he said.
College students who are education majors are seeing these things in their field placements in classrooms, as well.
6. Final tips for parents: Math resources are available free online and be helpful to students for homework and reviews, providing there is internet access available. The textbook and educational materials company Scholastic Inc. has made available an online listing of virtual math camps available at various times of year and other resources, Atkins noted.
Beyond resources tied to a particular grade level, it can just be helpful if parents can generally reinforce to their children from time to time the benefits of developing strong math and analytical skills, Atkins said. There may be opportunities to mention it during conversations that start out about other topics, she said, “Help your son or daughter view math in a positive light and see future career possibilities.”
Note to media: A more detailed version of this story will be published at www.saintleo.edu on October 26, 2021. For interviews, contact Jo-Ann Johnston, academic communications manager at Saint Leo University, at email@example.com
About Saint Leo University
Saint Leo University is one of the largest Catholic universities in the nation, offering 57 undergraduate and graduate-level degree programs to more than 18,200 students each year. Founded in 1889 by Benedictine monks, the private, nonprofit university is known for providing a values-based education to learners of all backgrounds and ages in the liberal arts tradition. Saint Leo is regionally accredited and offers a residential campus in the Tampa Bay region of Florida, 16 education centers in five states, and an online program for students anywhere. The university is home to more than 98,000 alumni. Learn more at saintleo.edu.