• by Kristin Grayson, M.Ed., and Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed. • IDRA Newsletter • January 2008 • Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed.

We all continue to hear critiques about the state of mathematics learning and teaching:

  • “Math Crisis? Students Don’t Get It. If improving science and math education is a national priority, someone apparently forgot to tell the parents and the students” (Associated Press, 2006).
  • “U.S. 15-year olds [are] outperformed by other nations in mathematics, problem-solving” (U.S. Department of Education, 2004).
  • “In our K-12 we were doing okay at the fourth-grade level, we were doing middle-of-the-road in the eighth grade, and by 12th grade we were hovering near the bottom in international tests related to math,” states Tracy Koon, Intel’s Director of Corporate Affairs (Friedman, 2005).

Schools are under immense pressure to improve student math achievement scores. Many schools and teachers are under the added pressure of district, state and federal scrutiny because of their adequate yearly progress (AYP) status for math under the No Child Left Behind Act.

So, how can parents and students be brought into this conversation?

There are ways that schools can use the support of their parents to make a difference in student math achievement. Parents are a critical piece to the solution. This article describes several specific activities that schools and parents have done together to address this challenge.

School Data Math Conversations

Alan H. Schoenfeld, of the University of California, Berkeley states, “To fail children in mathematics, or to let mathematics fail them, is to close off an important means of access to society’s resources” (2002).

One of the essential features of parent involvement is to have meaningful conversations about the knowledge that schools and parents possess. Schools have data from many sources that they can share with parents, such as past and current math achievement scores on district benchmark tests, mandated state test results, percentage of students enrolled in higher level math, percentage of students taking advanced placement and college entrance tests, percentage of students repeating required algebra (known as the gate-keeper course for graduation), and how the district or school compares with others.

IDRA has just launched an interactive School Holding Power Portal that the public can access that puts these types of data and other data together in a coherent way for the state of Texas (see article).

This sharing of information can be the springboard to the posing of the question: “What does the data mean?” This can generate lots of fruitful conversation.

In several school districts, IDRA trainers have done just this. And parents critically examined the data, pointed out where the numbers of an ethnic group were not adequate to make generalizations, and asked for clarification about the many types of data that were reported (“What test was this?” “What was this test compared to in order to get that ranking?” etc.).

Parent Conversations About Everyday Math

Brainstorming a list of ways that parents use math in everyday life is another way that deep conversations about math can be initiated. In sessions with IDRA, parents listed keeping a budget, calculating needs for food and gas and tracking cell phone minutes. Talking about these specific examples acknowledges that we all use math every day and are capable of doing advanced calculations even without formal education or the language of the school.

This also models how parents can encourage their children to think about mathematical concepts just by having conversations about daily activities.

As the conversations about math scores and daily math activities continue, parents can be encouraged to engage their children in discussions about mathematical concepts. Even if they have never taken a particular math course, parents can ask their children to explain a concept or relate it to something in real life.

Math Survey – Parent Initiated

At a school district in West Texas, a group of parents decided to create a student math survey. They distributed it through the schools’ math departments to all math students. The survey was short, bilingual and included several items that students were to rate on a Likert Scale from 1 to 5.

Statements included: “I usually get good grades in mathematics” and “When I don’t understand a concept, I am encouraged to ask questions in class.”

Open-ended statements also were included on the survey, such as “The most important thing that school can do to help a student learn math is…” and “The biggest block in school for a student to learn math is…”

At an urban school district, after collecting the student feedback from the same survey, parents first predicted how they thought their teenagers had responded to the questions. Then they compared their predictions to the actual survey results.

This generated deep conversation about the comments. (See sample facilitator questions.) From the discussion, it was apparent that there were things teachers, families and communities could do to improve math achievement.

There is an equivalent survey that parents can complete about their children’s math education that can then be used for meaningful conversation.

Using What is Learned

The final step of the parent conversations involved creating a graphic organizer that illustrated the ideas parents had shared about the specific suggestions for improving math achievement. Some of the ideas generated by one school district in Texas included finding ways for more men to serve as role models in the community, placing a suggestion box in each math classroom, and having more conversations related to math in families. A sample of this parent-generated organizer is available online at www.idra.org.

The parent organizer was shared with the math teaching staff at a school departmental meeting, which generated another fruitful conversation.

Having meaningful communication among the three critical groups of parents, students and teachers is one of the beneficial outcomes of parent involvement in math discussions. Other benefits include increasing parent awareness of campus data and accountability issues and awareness of specific things parents can do on a daily basis.

These are all critical components for supporting students and their proficiency and achievement in mathematics.

On Shortchanging Children

“Mathematics education is a civil rights issue,” says civil rights leader Robert Moses, who argues that children who are not quantitatively literate may be doomed to second-class economic status in our increasingly technological society. The data have been clear for decades: poor children and children of color are consistently shortchanged when it comes to mathematics. More broadly, the type of mathematical sophistication championed in recent reform documents, such as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics’ (2000) Principles and Standards for School Mathematics, can be seen as a core component of intelligent decision making in everyday life, in the workplace and in our democratic society. To fail children in mathematics, or to let mathematics fail them, is to close off an important means of access to society’s resources.

– Excepted from Alan H. Schoenfeld, University of California,
Berkeley in “Making Mathematics Work for All Children: Issues of Standards, Testing, and Equity”

Math Survey – Facilitator Questions

As parents review responses to their survey, facilitators guided the conversation with the questions below in brown.

  • My children have high grades in math.
    How do you know this? With whom, other than your children, have you had a conversation about your children’s academic achievement in mathematics?
  • Students are encouraged to ask questions.
    Why is this important information? What are other students’ responses beyond what your own children say?
  • When students don’t understand a concept, different ways are used to teach it.
    Why is it important that math be taught in a variety of ways? What happens when only one way of teaching is used?
  • The supplementary educational services, such as tutoring, help the students to succeed in their classes.
    How should tutoring differ from regular class instruction? What is most helpful to students in afterschool tutoring? What are some things about tutoring that are not helpful or motivating to students?
  • The most important thing that school can do to help a student learn math is…
    Why is it important to ask this question of students? What should we do about the answers students give?
  • The biggest block in school for a student to learn math is…
    Why is it important to ask this question of students? What should we do about the answers students give?


Associated Press. “Math Crisis? Students Don’t Get It Improving Science, Math is a U.S. Priority, But Many See No Problem,” CBS News (February 14, 2006).

Brown, K. “Applying Math to Children’s Lives,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, March 2006).

Dieckmann, J., and A.M. Montemayor. “Can Everyone Master Mathematics?,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, September 2004).

Friedman, T. The World Is Flat (New York, N.Y.: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005).

Schoenfeld, A.H. “Making Mathematics Work for All Children: Issues of Standards, Testing, and Equity,” Educational Researcher (January-February 2002).

U.S. Department of Education. “Pisa Results Show Need for High School Reform,” Extra Credit (December 7, 2004). http://www.ed.gov/news/newsletters/extracredit/2004/12/1207.html

Kristin Grayson, M.Ed., is an IDRA education associate. Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed, is an IDRA senior education associate and director of the Texas IDRA Parent Information and Resource Center. He also serves on the national board of PTA. Comments and questions may be directed to them via e-mail at feedback@idra.org.

[©2008, IDRA. The following article originally appeared in the January 2008 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]