Math Is Hard? No, Reading Is Hard

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.


If you’ve read the several dozen posts I’ve written about NAEP test scores over the years, you already know about one thing that stands out: scores on math tests have improved a lot more than scores on reading tests. Despite (or because of?) the endless math wars of the past few decades, the evidence suggests that we’re doing a better job of teaching math than we used to. Quite a bit better, in fact.1

But why? Motoko Rich asks the experts and gets the following answers:

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.

…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.

….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.

I’d argue about that third bullet. The “ideological divisions” over math teaching have actually been pretty damn impressive for the past few decades, though it’s possible that they’ve calmed down lately.

The other two bullets sound more plausible, though. Low SES kids start out with a big reading deficit as early as kindergarten, and it’s hard to make up that deficit later on. The deficit in math is probably small or zero. I’m a little less sure about possible cultural issues, but that might be part of it too. And if I were speculating, I’d suggest that because language is more hardwired into the brain than math, it might just be a tougher nut to crack.

In any case, I just wanted to pass this along. There are a few topics that mainstream news organizations rarely mention—for example, the fact that test scores are up, not down, over the past few decades—and the math/reading dichotomy is one of them. It’s nice to see it at least get a mention.

1Up through 8th grade, anyway. Beyond that, test scores have been fairly flat in both reading and math.

We've never been very good at being conservative.

And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

payment methods

We've never been very good at being conservative.

And usually, that serves us well in doing the ambitious, hard-hitting journalism that you turn to Mother Jones for. But it also means we can't afford to come up short when it comes to scratching together the funds it takes to keep our team firing on all cylinders, and the truth is, we finished our budgeting cycle on June 30 about $100,000 short of our online goal.

This is no time to come up short. It's time to fight like hell, as our namesake would tell us to do, for a democracy where minority rule cannot impose an extreme agenda, where facts matter, and where accountability has a chance at the polls and in the press. If you value our reporting and you can right now, please help us dig out of the $100,000 hole we're starting our new budgeting cycle in with an always-needed and always-appreciated donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate