Most American Schools Not Prepared to Identify Math Disabilities

28 October 2023

Many American education experts are concerned about students' performance in the subject of mathematics.

Scores on standardized tests are falling, students are having trouble learning high-level math in college and some teachers do not feel prepared to teach math to young people.

Laura Jackson's daughter was nine years old when she discovered that she was having a learning problem that her school was not prepared to deal with.

Preschool students practice math using manipulatives at a public school in Boston in 2016. (Lillian Mongeau/The Hechinger Report via AP)
Preschool students practice math using manipulatives at a public school in Boston in 2016. (Lillian Mongeau/The Hechinger Report via AP)

Jackson said she started to worry about her daughter when she was having problems with math in third grade. She said other students had no trouble doing multiplication problems, but her daughter still used her fingers to count.

Discovering dyscalculia

At that point, the girl asked her mother if she was "stupid." She was still having trouble with math although she had been working with a special math teacher.

Then Jackson heard about a learning problem from a friend. It is called dyscalculia. She looked up the learning disability and found that the learning problem prevents children from understanding numbers and learning math.

"I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is my kid'," Jackson said.

Around the U.S., hundreds of thousands of students might have a math-learning problem such as dyscalculia. However, most schools are not prepared to deal with the condition.

Easier to find reading problems

Schools are getting better at discovering learning problems. States passed laws that require testing young students for problems such as dyslexia, a common reading disability. But schools are not yet required to test for problems with numbers. One study, published by the National Library of Medicine in 2019, said between three and seven percent of the population has dyscalculia.

Karen Wilson is a neuropsychologist who tests children for learning problems. "There's not as much research on math disorders," when compared to reading problems, she said.

Math test scores have been decreasing in the U.S. for years, but the numbers got worse after the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way students learned. Few teachers say anyone has tested their students for dyscalculia.

Education experts say the kind of slow and repetitive math teaching that helps students with dyscalculia might also help other students.

Sandra Elliott currently works for TouchMath, an education company that sells a math teaching program. She used to be a special education teacher. She said schools that change their teaching to help students who have "severe disconnections and slower processing speeds," will also help other students get better at math.

Some schools, such as the one Jackson's daughter attended, do not always believe students have a serious math learning problem when they do well in other subjects.

Jackson researched dyscalculia on her own and decided to write a book about her family's problems. She found many schools do not know about the problem.

She said parents think schools will let them know if their child is having trouble, "but that's just not how it works."

How to help students

Lynn Fuchs is a professor in special education and human development at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. She said students with math learning problems need "systematic and explicit" teaching. That means they need math teachers who have learned how to help students who have a math disability. Most do not have enough training. For example, some states require teachers to get dyslexia awareness training in order to renew their teaching permit. But no such requirement exists for dyscalculia.

Amelia Malone is a director at the National Center for Learning Disabilities. She said there are not enough high-level degrees in education that center on math learning disabilities "with any level of...depth, quality or rigor."

In addition, most schools do not have specialists who can work with math learning problems. Jackson said she took it upon herself to learn how to teach students with dyscalculia and started giving her daughter extra help.

In New York City, some schools do look for math problems among their students. In 2015 and 2016, the city spent $6 million to introduce a math program with games, art projects and songs. However, most school systems do not do that.

Some education experts say students, such as Jackson's daughter, could improve if schools used different methods to teach math to young people. These could include games, wooden blocks, body motions and songs.

After spending time working with her daughter, Jackson said the girl returned to classes and as her education continued, she started getting good grades in Algebra.

She said students need to understand they are not "bad at math." They need help learning and can then succeed in the subject.

I'm Dan Friedell. And I'm Gena Bennett.

Dan Friedell adapted this piece for Learning English based on story by the Hechinger Report and republished by the Associated Press.


Words in This Story

standardized test –n. a test that is the same for everyone which aims to measure a student's ability in one or more subjects

multiplication –n. repeated addition of a number by one or more other numbers or values

gosh –interjection an expression of surprise

systematic –adj. a method that follows a system and is not disordered or impossible to explain

explicit –adj. clearly stated; openly shown

rigor –n. a quality of being exact, strict and careful