Dear Commons Community,
The New York Times has an article on the differences in teaching mathematics and reading to low-income students. Citing several studies as well as first-hand accounts, the article concludes that urban school districts are having more success in raising math scores than reading scores among low-income populations. Here is an excerpt:
“Studies have repeatedly found that “teachers have bigger impacts on math test scores than on English test scores,” said Jonah Rockoff, an economist at Columbia Business School. He was a co-author of a study that showed that teachers who helped students raise standardized test scores had a lasting effect on those students’ future incomes, as well as other lifelong outcomes.
Teachers and administrators who work with children from low-income families say one reason teachers struggle to help these students improve reading comprehension is that deficits start at such a young age: in the 1980s, the psychologists Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley found that by the time they are 4 years old, children from poor families have heard 32 million fewer words than children with professional parents.
By contrast, children learn math predominantly in school.
“Your mother or father doesn’t come up and tuck you in at night and read you equations,” said Geoffrey Borman, a professor at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the University of Wisconsin. “But parents do read kids bedtime stories, and kids do engage in discussions around literacy, and kids are exposed to literacy in all walks of life outside of school.”
Reading also requires background knowledge of cultural, historical and social references. Math is a more universal language of equations and rules.
“Math is really culturally neutral in so many ways,” said Scott Shirey, executive director of KIPP Delta Public Schools in Arkansas. “For a child who’s had a vast array of experiences around the world, the Pythagorean theorem is just as difficult or daunting as it would be to a child who has led a relatively insular life.”
Education experts also say reading development simply requires that students spend so much more time practicing.
And while reading has been the subject of fierce pedagogical battles, “the ideological divisions are not as great on the math side as they are on the literacy side,” said Linda Chen, deputy chief academic officer in the Boston Public Schools. In 2011, 29 percent of eighth graders eligible for free lunch in Boston scored at proficient or advanced levels on federal math exams, compared with just 17 percent in reading.”