CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In the last 30 years, I've put four grandchildren and great grandchildren through Kanawha County schools. I currently have one in the fourth grade.
In that time, I've watched the math curriculum in our elementary schools go from good to bad. In the "old days," elementary students were repetitiously taught addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions, decimals and percentages until most had mastered these basic topics. This repetition gave the students an excellent foundation on which to build. It made it much easier to learn algebra, geometry and metrics in the later grades.
Today, elementary schools are trying to introduce to the students as many math topics as they can to give the students a more diverse education. The students are being taught a little bit of everything but not enough of anything. For instance, they are taught three different ways to multiply and three different ways to subtract, and they are taught algebra, geometry and metrics. There is a time and place for these topics, but elementary school isn't it. The elementary schools should be repetitiously teaching the basics.
A manager of a fast-food restaurant told me that many of today's graduates can't make the correct change at a cash register unless the register calculates it for them. Another manager of a local company was trying to hire a new employee and she said that only one of the 10 applicants could correctly answer a basic math question. I think this failure of our students to do basic math, points like a laser beam back to the failure of the elementary school math curriculum.
"Diversity" in elementary school math may be a great sound bite, but it's failing. The United States is currently ranked anywhere from 23rd to 32nd in math skills, depending on the source. I don't think Kanawha County is an exception to that statistic.
Singapore adopted a system called "Singapore Math," and they went from 16th to the top. They currently teach fewer topics per grade level and they spend more time on each topic. Their goal is to gain mastery of each topic instead of superficial learning. Why can't we do that?
It's time for our school leaders to take control of this situation and make changes to the elementary school math curriculum. They need to remove the topics that can be taught later and concentrate on the basic topics. Our students need to gain mastery, just like Singapore.
Wilkinson, of Charleston, is a retired senior analyst in information systems at Union Carbide.