Why don’t we spend more time teaching math?

ELA gets significantly more classroom time. Awareness of this discrepancy is the first step to solving this problem.
By: | August 19, 2019
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Evgeny Milyutin is co-founder and CEO of HappyNumbers.com.

English language arts and math are the one-two punch of the elementary school curriculum. Yet the average teaching time spent on these two areas is far from equal and balanced, with ELA receiving significantly more classroom time despite the recent and growing emphasis on STEM subjects.

It’s easy to understand why teachers focus on ELA and math. Standardized testing and pressure from administrators and parents emphasize these two areas more than other subjects. But why is ELA favored over math? Let’s look at this trend to better understand what’s happening.

Instruction time: ELA vs. math

A 2017 Illinois-specific study showed that each day, an average of 132 minutes are devoted to ELA, while 72 minutes are spent on math. However, in that state, the gap is closing slightly. Teachers are reallocating time spent on ELA in favor of more math time. Some schools have even opted to give equal teaching time to ELA and math, offering students a full 100 minutes for each. Low math scores on state exams and a general growing emphasis on STEM subjects have motivated educators to increase math instruction time.

Officials at the Center on Education Policy at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., suggest that ELA has long been favored over math. But following the No Child Left Behind Act, which was signed into law in 2002, school administrators adjusted instruction time significantly, making the gap larger. Most notably, the time spent on subjects other than math and ELA was cut significantly.

By increasing the quality and quantity of instruction in math, we can help students reach higher achievement and success in math.

In 2001, elementary school administrators reported spending an average of 378 minutes per week on ELA, but by 2007, they spent an average of 520 minutes per week. Math instruction time also increased from an average of 264 minutes per week to an average of 352 minutes per week. As you can see, the change favored ELA over math. The gap grew from 114 to168 more minutes per week spent on ELA.

How do teachers plan instruction time?

A teacher’s personal preference may play a role, but so do district and school policies, administrative pressure and other factors.

The introduction of Common Core may be one of the reasons teachers don’t like math today. Common Core math was designed to offer students a greater, deeper and more sophisticated understanding of math. However, the shift in teaching methods means that teachers are now expected to teach math in a way that’s vastly different from the way they learned math.

Despite this change in expectations, teacher training programs can still do more to help prepare teachers for the classroom. While many teacher training programs include pedagogy and a requirement for algebra and other higher-level math courses, not all teachers go through the curriculum in the same way that students do, says Deborah Loewenberg Ball, dean of the University of Michigan School of Education.

As recently as 2016, only 7% of teachers surveyed at a Georgia public school felt “strongly prepared” to teach math in their classrooms. This lackluster confidence in teaching math can’t be helpful when teachers block out their instruction time. They have little motivation to buck the standard of favoring ELA over math.

How can we offer more math to students?

As a general observation, ELA instruction time greatly outweighs math instruction time. Awareness of this discrepancy can help teachers analyze why they’re doing this and how they can change their schedules to offer more balanced instruction. Students need more support and instruction time from teachers to overcome the primary math crisis.

How can teachers make this happen? Here are some practical steps:
Add areas to your classroom for independent learning time that offer math games and technology tools. Some kids will use the areas even before the bell rings.

Initiate number talks to have whole-group math conversations. Having number talks is a relatively easy way to get started.

Take advantage of free professional development and online resources to gain confidence in teaching math.
Even small changes can make a big difference over time. Adding just 5-10 minutes of quality math time per day can add up to 25-50 additional minutes per week. By increasing the quality and quantity of instruction in math, we can help students reach higher achievement and success in math.

Now tell us, what’s your take? How are you giving math equal priority? And if not, why?

Edtech advocate Evgeny Milyutin is co-founder and CEO of HappyNumbers.com, a technology-driven personal teaching assistant that helps preschool through grade 5 teachers differentiate instruction and deepen students’ conceptual understanding of math