I Went to a Good School, So Why Am I Terrible at Math?

Jan 5, 2017 12:00:00 AM


Math is/was/always will be my worst subject. It doesn’t matter if it’s factorials (good God, what?), statistics (it looks easy but it’s not), or even something as simple as long division—there’s nothing like the sense of dread I feel when faced with numbers, equations and formulas. Sometimes I can’t even handle everyday math functions, like calculating tips at restaurants, doing taxes, or figuring out sale discounts while shopping. I used to think I could get away with living math-free. And, honestly, so far I have. But lately I've been thinking of going to grad school—and my kryptonite of numbers has finally caught up with me.

We're Not Up to Snuff

I always chalked up my inability to do math as something inherent. Some people in school were good at math and science, others like me were good at English and writing. But now looking back, I realize it may not have been just a “me” thing. I attended one of the best high schools in Las Vegas, Nevada, where students already had to be the cream of the crop to get accepted. [pullquote position="left"]How could I have graduated from a top-notch high school with such terrible math skills?[/pullquote] Sadly, I’m not the only person in this boat. In 2013, more than two-thirds of 10th-graders in Vegas’ Clark County School District (CCSD) failed Nevada’s math proficiency exam. What’s more alarming is that passing the proficiency test was once a graduation requirement. Let’s not get it twisted. I’m not blaming CCSD for my inability to do derivatives or solve for x. But maybe I should.
  • If I went to such a good school, why do I suck so bad at math?
  • Would I hate math so much today if I’d had a teacher who didn’t make me feel so bad about not understanding it easily?
  • Would I have improved at math if I had better study supports or confidence to believe I could learn it?
Maybe the situation is all of that and then some. [pullquote position="right"]Perhaps it also has to do with how math used to be taught in schools.[/pullquote] A 2014 New York Times Magazine article aptly called, Why Do Americans Stink At Math?, points out the downfalls of memorizing formulas for the sake of just getting answers:
By focusing only on procedures—“Draw a division house, put ‘242’ on the inside and ‘16’ on the outside, etc.”—and not on what the procedures mean, turns school math into a sort of arbitrary process wholly divorced from the real world of numbers. Students learn not math but, in the words of one math educator, answer-getting... ...The answer-getting strategies may serve them well for a class period of practice problems, but after a week, they forget. And students often can’t figure out how to apply the strategy for a particular problem to new problems.

Making Math Skills ‘Common’

The Common Core State Standards aren’t the first attempt to encourage a different way of teaching math, but it’s safe to say that I probably wouldn’t be so awful at math today if Common Core was around during my high school days. Education professor Gary Christie says one of the major upsides of Common Core math is that it “ mimics everyday lives.” Rather than memorizing calculations and formulas, the focus is more on teaching students to use facts in order to analyze problems and find solutions. If I had been taught to use math in a real-world context, I would have understood that it’s more than SOHCAHTOA and the Pythagorean Theorem (and please don’t ask me what those are).

By realizing it plays a role in day-to-day life with things like personal finance, problem-solving and more, I might have even seen math’s value as a skill sooner. During high school, it was enough to get by with C’s in algebra and geometry. But it turns out I didn’t actually learn anything the years I progressed up the math ladder. In the end, I was just another student from my high school who got a diploma and went to college. But my foundation was shaky—and as I try to build on it now, I’m paying the price. All I can do now is cram from my GRE test-prep book, and hope that the higher standards most states have adopted are encouraging schools to actually teach kids these essential skills for life and career, instead of passing them along for a diploma. Then those kids can hit me up, because I need a tutor.

Kimberly De Guzman

Kimberly De Guzman is an English teacher in Gyeongsangnam-do, South Korea. Previously, she served as the Social Media Manager at Education Post. Prior to joining Education Post, she worked as a Digital Editor for the Sun Times Network, where she oversaw the social media accounts for a number of city-based and special topic websites and created original content for a national entertainment website. Originally born in Chicago, Kim grew up in Las Vegas and is a product of the Clark County School District. Kim has a journalism degree from Loyola University Chicago. Outside of work, she enjoys reading, photography and baking.

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