Maria Gutzeit | The War on Math Is the Wrong Answer

SCV Voices: Guest Commentary
SCV Voices: Guest Commentary
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If you partake of any news at all, you know that parents of school-age kids are feeling frustrated and upset. This is influencing election outcomes and making once-sleepy school board meetings contentious. 

One point is worth remembering: The reason busy parents say anything at all is because our kids are one of the most important things in our lives. 

There’s plenty of frustrations. Masks or no masks. Vaccines or no vaccines. Open or closed schools. One thing that has been weighing heavy on me is the apparent lack of concern for challenging, top-notch learning, during COVID-19 or otherwise. It’s all but missing in public discussions, but we parents sure talk about it. 

The daughter of an immigrant father and a mother who was the first in her family to attend college, I was raised to believe education is sacrosanct. Education is your key to stability, to a life of fewer struggles. 

Good grades and good schooling were our only path to somewhere else. 

For us, somewhere else meant a town where Farm and Fleet wasn’t the biggest store, and where bagging groceries wasn’t your only job prospect. 

Cue my sensitivity to the new “war on math.” 

When local kids get into advanced math, parents get a form letter warning them that there will be hours of extra homework (there’s not) and urging them to call the school district if they want to pull their kid out of the program. The words “congratulations” or “good job” are nowhere to be found in that letter. 

California is evaluating a new math curriculum based on the suppositions that math is bad for equity and that gifted programs are a problem. 

The proposal is delayed due to opposition from thousands of brave math teachers and working STEM professionals, but it’s still alive. There seems to be some potential for local decision-making on this, and I hope our local schools take parent input. 

Here’s my input as a chemical engineer and mom: math is math. Math can be hard. If you want to work in a science-based field you need to get it or people can literally die from your mistakes. 

Even in business or personal life, failure to understand risk, percentages, probabilities and more makes life harder. To complete college in four years in any tech discipline, you better be fully understanding math before you arrive as a freshman. 

The answer is not to welcome engineers who can’t calculate forces, or velocities, or chemical mixtures. The answer is not to hold back the kids who have a knack for it. The answer is to improve math education for kids who struggle with it but want to learn. 

Imagine a music virtuoso. You don’t scrap advanced band because some kids don’t play as well. You focus on sparking a love for music in younger kids and helping them discipline and challenge themselves as they get older. 

Thank goodness for our local recorder programs and our excellent local music teachers and music parents! 

Math is no different. Parental support, excellent teachers, and good materials help kids learn math. Taking challenging math away from math whizzes doesn’t help more kids learn math. 

One thought: How about some non-education-industry review of the materials already in existence, before assuming why it isn’t working for some, especially in the field of math? 

During COVID-19 we had lots of time to look at the worksheets and questions provided to our kids in all subjects. They are filled with mistakes and written about as well as old VCR manuals. IKEA furniture manuals are clearer than what our kids get. 

School materials need less mumbo jumbo and more clear, concise writing akin to what is expected in the working world. 

In the quest to make things “interesting,” textbooks feature example “stories” that leave out critical information and are littered with lingo that no one ever uses in the real world. Kids (and COVID parents) must navigate poor writing and make assumptions that would never fly in real life — all at the same time they are learning new concepts about math, or history, or science. 

We all want our kids to succeed. That doesn’t happen by taking things away from kids who are doing well. Those kids need more challenges, not less, to grow into their best selves. 

Just like music, we help kids with tough subjects like math by fostering a love for it, using good materials and good teachers, and celebrating student successes. 

How about we try that before dissing algebra? 

Maria Gutzeit is a chemical engineer, business owner and mom living in Santa Clarita. 

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