When Dan Yorke (of Dan Yorke State of Mind) asked Ken Wagner, Rhode Island’s Education Commissioner, about our math scores being “in the dumper,” Wagner replied with one simple explanation: “We have a problem with fractions.” And it was clear from the conversation that the problem isn’t limited to our students but extends to the teachers who are tasked with teaching and explaining the very proportional reasoning that is consistently tripping students up when they get to algebra.
It may sound too simple to be true but his assertion is based on research and data that is not unique to Rhode Island.
According to a 2017 article in Scientific American, fractions are where it all seems to go wrong.
Fifth graders’ fraction knowledge predicts high school students’ algebra learning and overall math achievement, even after controlling for whole number knowledge, the students’ IQ, and their families’ education and income.
Easy, let’s just teach fractions better in 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade. Welp, according to Wagner it’s not so easy because he was unable to say that he had confidence that our teachers are currently prepared to get the job done. His answer is that our teachers will not be able to teach proportional reasoning—or fractions—until they receive different and better training.
Umm, ok. There are kids in the seats right now, so how long will that take? And are there other ways to catch them up that don’t require their assigned teachers to learn it first?
And what does it say about our teacher preparation and certification expectations that our commissioner is positive that our teachers aren’t currently prepared to teach 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade math in a way that provides the base students need for algebra and beyond?
I’m glad the commissioner was willing to be so honest and up front about the problem. But there is nothing to celebrate about identifying the problem if we aren’t in any position to actually solve it quickly.