Murray Siegel Maricopa
Murray Siegel [File]

There are many difficult challenges facing the United States, yet one vital problem receives little coverage by politicians or the media — the growing acceleration in technological development.

Our nation must be able to deal with cyberterrorism, gene splicing, artificial intelligence, data mining, robotics and the destructive effects of climate change, among others. A barrier to meeting these daunting challenges is the lack of U.S. citizens motivated to seek a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) degree in college and their ability to successfully complete such an academic program.

Universities, researchers, corporations and foundations have spent decades seeking to improve the number of Americans receiving STEM degrees. One barrier to this objective is the inability of many U.S. high school graduates to successfully navigate four semesters of calculus, a necessary ingredient in obtaining a four-year STEM degree.

What has been tried to improve student success in calculus? College courses have been revamped and placement programs have been developed. Some researchers attempted to improve students’ preparation by seeking a solution at the high school level. Some have provided speakers and field trips to middle school students to motivate them to consider a STEM career. To date, these efforts have not borne fruit. What is the problem?

The efforts to better prepare students for success in STEM were in the wrong grades. It is in elementary schools where many students learn they cannot “do math.” Others see math as a set of meaningless rules and give up on pursuing advanced courses.

Why is the root of the problem in our elementary schools? Elementary classes are constructed to include students of all ability levels. This is fine in many subjects, but mathematics is cumulative and students should be in a class commensurate with their abilities. A fifth-grade class might contain a few students who still cannot add or subtract whole numbers as well as students who can already operate with fractions and decimals. The remaining students are at various locations on the learning curve. The teacher complies with the required curriculum. Students at the low end give up, realizing they cannot do math. Students at the upper end get bored and find areas of interest that do not require mathematical knowledge. The origin of mixed ability classes is a desire to avoid labeling students.

To demonstrate the lack of logic in mixed-ability grouping in elementary school math classes, consider this scenario. Imagine all college freshmen had to take a Calculus 1 class as first semester freshmen. Students who had taken Advanced Placement Calculus in high school and who should be exempt from this course are required to be in the class — that is the rule. Students who barely passed math in high school and who should be in a remedial class are in the Calculus 1 class — this is the rule. This scenario is both unfair and irrational, yet that is exactly what occurs in most elementary school math classes.

What can be done? Next month’s column will provide answers.

Murray Siegel, Ph.D., has more than 44 years of teaching experience and volunteers at Butterfield Elementary School. 

This column appeared in the January 2021 edition of InMaricopa magazine.