being me, reflection, Student-centered, students

Is it Okay That 5% Don’t Get It?

image from icanread

“…I wish I could do 5th grade over again…” the student looks at me sadness in his eyes.

“Why?” I ask.

“Because then maybe I would have a chance at getting it.”

My heart breaks.  This kid has tried so hard but the holes in knowledge just seem to grow as our curriculum picks up speed and we are asking them to do more, figure out more, understand deeper.  The math test he holds in his hands with all of the circled problems, asking to be fixed, seems to be insurmountable at the moment.  So I rack my brain, what else can we do?  My team and I try so hard to reach every kid, to fill in the holes, to help them understand not just regurgitate and yet it is not enough.  Some of our kids still don’t get math, some of our kids still don’t grow in areas where we have tried so hard.

And this isn’t the first year, every year we have these kids.  These kids that show up with gaps already.  These kids that work hard, even if they get a bit distracted, and yet what we are doing is simply not enough.  The language we speak in math is above them and no matter how much we try with smaller groups and remediation it doesn’t catch them up.  So we keep on pushing, hoping that something clicks and then pass them on to the next year’s teachers hoping that perhaps they have the solution.

We tend to feel successful in our math instruction because most of our kids get it.  Most of our kids do well on tests.  Most of our kids grow a lot.  But is “most” enough anymore?  Can we really say we are successful if all the kids are not getting it?  Is it okay to base success on the 95% that do and just live with the 5% that don’t.  I don’t think it is anymore, but I don’t know how to help them. Yet.  How do we reach those kids with their gaping holes in a day that is already chock full of new?  How do we build up their confidence?  How do we make the curriculum accessible?

I hope you have some ideas to share.


So we can do two things.  We can say that is just how it is.  That every year some kids will not grow as much as they should.  That we tried our hardest  and hopefully some of it stuck even though we know it was not enough.  After all, most of our kids do just fine with the curriculum, so what are a few loses?  Or we can do as my team does.  Get to gether and try to come up with a new plan.  Try again.  Try to reach every kid.

9 thoughts on “Is it Okay That 5% Don’t Get It?”

  1. Some of the curriculum is simply obsolete and unnecessary. This is the 21st Century. Well past time to go down to the 99-cent store and buy the technological bridge over the child-eating chasm that is long division.

    1. I totally agree Mgreenup, but the fact that every student in most states has to pass Algebra 2 is so much crazier… at least long division is a practice of multiplication, subtraction, and division. Multiplying polynomials and other even more theoretical Algebra 2 concepts are used in so few careers that students end up choosing. Mayors, vets, English teachers, lawyers, police chiefs… None of them could pass an Algebra 2 test today.

  2. It’s not okay when your child is that 5%. As parents, my husband and I are working hard to help our daughter succeed. Let me rephrase that. We’re struggling. We’ve worked together with her teachers over the years. She’s had extra help, tutors, she’s gone to drop in math help over lunch hour and before school. Some years have been better than others. Then there have been the years where she was passed on to the next year’s teacher, as you say, hoping that perhaps they have the solution. She received a ‘B’ in grade 8 math last year. That’s pretty good, right? Now, we are just days away from the point where she will ultimately fail grade 9 math and not be able to recover, no matter how hard she tries. There will be no motivation to continue at that point. Why bother?

    The homework is insurmountable, over 3 hours a night we’ll struggle, and it often ends in frustration and tears. She can barely regurgitate the steps and rules, let alone grasp a deeper understanding. The math we speak of might as well be a foreign language. I can tell by teary blank gazes. It feels like no matter what we and her teachers do to help, she keeps slipping further and further behind.

    Being a teenager is tough enough without having to look at yourself in the mirror and say, “I’m stupid. I don’t understand. I’ll never get it.” It breaks my heart to see her self-confidence and self-esteem fade away. She’s a smart girl and does well in all her other courses. But that doesn’t matter. Because it’s not math. She’s a brilliant artist. You should see her stacks of sketchbooks full of abstract, mosaic and geometric designs with eye-popping colours. Her free-hand ability to sketch Manga, Chibi and Anime characters is incredible. But she sucks at math. It’s consuming her and threatening to define her permanently. She’s the 5% that we try our hardest with, but we don’t know how to help her.

    If she doesn’t pass her math courses, she doesn’t get her high school diploma. If she doesn’t get her high school diploma, her options for post-secondary education are limited. This doesn’t include the negative emotional impact and stigma of having failed grade 9 math…to herself, her peers, her teachers, and others. Did I mention her younger sister is “gifted” and far surpassed her years ago in every subject? Her younger brother has, too. You can well imagine how this sibling dynamic plays out.

    Pernille, If you (or anyone reading this) should ever come across a plan or an approach that you think might help, please. I would love to hear about it. I’m willing to try anything to help her succeed. She may never truly understand math. I get that and can accept that. But at this point, I just want her to be able to jump through the hoops enough (regurgitate) to pass her required math courses for high school graduation.

    I thank you for providing this space to engage in a dialogue about the 5%. Tonight, at the parent-teacher open house, we will find out if it’s too late.

    1. I read your story and as a high school math teacher I am curious as to what content she is struggling in and what book the school is using? If I can be of help I would do my best, I will need some specifics though. This can include practice problems or a just the content they are working on.

      1. Thank you Daniel and V. I really do appreciate your comments and concerns. In Ontario (Canada) we have two options for high school courses, academic or applied. As much as Ontario thinks they did away with “streaming”, this is in fact what the two options do. Academic is for university bound students and applied…not so much. There is a stigma with taking applied courses and the statistics reinforce that dominant view (ie. lower grad rates). The below link to a news article explains it much better than I do. In my daughter’s situation, she started out in the academic math stream. She has now switched (aka: dropped down – that’s the stigma) to the applied level in effort to save her semester and course. Interestingly, she’s academic in all her other courses, just not math. We’re taking it one step at a time and for now, we’ll wait and see how it goes. Once again, thank you for your support!!

  3. Wow – such a powerful post, and Tracy, my heart is breaking for you and your daughter. We do define ourselves by these successes and failures. Is a summer school option available for your daughter to retake the credit, so that she doesn’t lose it completely, or would re-doing it make her feel worse?
    When we are trying to help our students wrap their heads around failure being another step on the journey, and that mistakes are okay, it is really hard to deal with the fact that failing a course can be a door-closer.

    I have a couple of students in my Grade 8 class this year that will be in this boat next year. Kids who struggle, no matter how they try, with retaining the basic structures needed for success in math, and often kids without the amazing parental support that you are offering.

    Please keep us posted on how things go. I hope so much that it’s not too late.

    I, too, am one who refuses to just say “that’s just the way it is” – and that’s a hard line sometimes in the second language class where I teach.

  4. Tracy, has she been tested for a learning disability? There discalcula, disgraphia, dyslexia, etc., and different ways of teaching that would help her learn. Your school should be the first place to ask.

  5. Is it ok? No! Does it seem impossible to not only fill in the gaps, recover from too many years of feeling as though they “can’t do it,” parents who excuse it as “I was bad at math too,” and home lives that do not help/encourage/take care of their needs, eductional or physical. Do these excuses make it okay either? No.

    It is a problem with the education system that is put in place. Teaching by grade level rather than ability level, passing students on when they still don’t “get it.” I think this is a case of a total overhaul of how we teach, which is easier said than done! As teachers, it is a daunting task to reach these students, while still teaching the 95%.

    How? I have not come up with this solution, but through creative teaching, small groups, etc…we can hope to do our best for the 5%. I will be following this post to see if any great teachers out there have found the magic solution!

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