By Linda Strean, Managing Editor, GreatSchools
The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has spelled out three math "focal points" for children in each grade, from kindergarten through eighth. Fennell said the council developed this short list because state standards vary widely and some of them include more than a hundred objectives for each grade. While the NCTM wrote these focal points for teachers and other educators, the list also offer parents a way to understand what their children should be focusing on.
"If my child is in Grade 6, I know a focus will be fractions," says Fennell. "That will take up more time than, say, adding whole numbers, which he should know how to do by now."
W. Stephen Wilson is a Johns Hopkins math professor who teaches freshman calculus and is a former senior advisor for mathematics in the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. He also reviewed the states' K-12 math standards for the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, and he has strong opinions about which offer the best guidance. He called California's math standards "the gold standard." Wilson recommends that parents who want to make sure their students are getting prepared for high school and college compare the topics in their students' textbooks to the California standards.
"Odds are, if you can't do that easily then there is something very wrong," he says.
Look for Homework Clues
Wilson offers this advice to parents trying to evaluate their students' math instruction:
"If a student isn't bringing home work that requires lots of manipulation and lots of word problems, then there is probably a problem."
Fennell suggests talking to your child and the math teacher about how homework is used. You may learn a lot from the answers if you ask:
*Are homework assignments corrected and returned in a timely way?
*Is homework reviewed in class so students can learn from their mistakes?
*Does the teacher change the pace or direction of his instruction, based on the feedback he gets in homework?
You don't need to be a mathematician to ask good questions about the content of your child's class, Fennell says. "Ask the teacher 'What is the math? Is it a repeat of math that should have already been mastered? When my child finishes this year, will he be ready for high school math?'"
Bill Moore directs the Transition Mathematics Project in Washington state, which is working to better prepare students for the transition to college math. He summed up what middle school students need to get out of math this way:
"Students need to have a very solid foundation of basic procedural skills that really make problem-solving more fluid. There's a fundamental set of stuff that just has to be memorized, and there there's a sense of numbers, a sense of what's a reasonable answer. That's particularly important with the use of calculators. In some cases, in the elementary grades, they've been used as a crutch. Students go straight to the calculator and if the calculator says it's right, then it must be right."
Look at How Calculators Are Used
Talk to your child's math teacher about how calculators are used in the classroom. Debate has raged for years over whether students are relying too much on calculators and failing to learn the standard algorithms - addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. But there does seem to be general agreement with the view expressed by Fennell that "the calculator is an instructional tool. It should support but not supplant anything. You don't use it for 6 x 7."
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