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Wednesday, 17 September 2014 17:37

Guide to math

Monday, 15 September 2014 00:00

Parents Guide to Math and Science

Math got you muddled? How about your child’s science homework (or is science an afterthought in her school)? Remember, there’s more to these subjects than what appears in a textbook. You might be surprised by how much you can assess from clues in your kids’ classrooms. 

By Lydie Raschka and Clara Hemphill

Are you confused by your child’s math homework? Are you worried that the work seems too hard—or too easy? Is science an afterthought in your child’s school? This two-part guide will help you find out whether your children are getting the math or science instruction they need in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade—and will help you do something about it if they aren’t. It will explain what the new Common Core State Learning Standards mean for your child. No school is perfect, but if you understand the strengths and weaknesses of your child’s school you can help fill in the gaps—even if you don’t know much math and science yourself. You can learn a great deal by looking around your child’s classroom, by asking your child’s teacher a few questions during a parent-teacher conference, and by listening to your child talk about his day. 

In this section we will focus on how you can make the most of your next visit to your child’s school. You’ll likely be there for an open house or other early-fall meet-and-greet this month, so arm yourself with the ideas below. 

The knowledge and insights found here are the direct result of a study undertaken by, a project of the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School, with generous support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. School data was reviewed and analyzed to identify New York City public schools that were strong in math and science. Through visits to the top schools, “test prep factories” were weeded out, and our researchers began to see similarities among our favorites. Additionally, we looked at research and spoke to experts in the field—as well as teachers, parents, math and science coaches, and administrators—to define what constitutes strong math and science instruction in elementary school. While the study took place in New York City, the conclusions drawn are relevant to schools in any district in our wider region.

For All Grade Levels

Whatever your child’s grade level, look for fun-to-read books about math and science, as well as fish tanks, animals such as gerbils, live plants and tools including magnifying glasses, magnets, or electrical circuits. There is more to math and science than what you can find in a textbook. 

Check the daily schedule, which is usually posted in the classroom. Children should be working on math at least one hour a day. Science lessons should be part of a regular school day, not only a special class once a week. If you see an egg incubator (so children can watch chicks hatch and grow) or caterpillars (which will grow into butterflies), that’s a good clue that science lessons are part of the daily routine. 

The best schools find ways to weave science together with math, reading, social studies, and even art. Children may work for long periods on units on birds, or bridges, or Central Park. Look for evidence of these explorations in the classroom. At PS 321 in Brooklyn, for example, kindergartners study trees. They post tree graphs, leaf rubbings, and diagrams based on their frequent trips to the park to observe changes over the course of the year. 

Of course you want to see children’s artwork and essays on the walls, but you should see examples of math and science as well. At PS 221 in Queens, a bulletin board had fourth graders’ own questions about science: “How do snails breathe?” and “How does dust form?” and “What started the Black Death?” Science exploration that starts with children’s own questions is more likely to prompt them to ask more. 

Most of the science experts we interviewed said it’s more important to spark children’s curiosity than to develop a particular body of knowledge in the elementary school years. Whether your child is studying the solar system or rocks and minerals, it’s important that he is excited and engaged in his work. Learning lots of facts can wait. 

“Too much rote learning may well kill interest,” said Richard Seager, a climate scientist at Columbia University and parent of two children who attended PS 75 in Manhattan. “I would think that the best that can be done is to instill a sense of wonder and interest in the natural world in the kids, that they may be motivated to pursue it more in the future.” 

Math is a little different. It’s important for math to be exciting and fun. But there are also specific skills children need to learn each grade in elementary school to prepare them for middle school and high school. A look around the classroom will also help you discern if these skills are being taught. 


Pre-Kindergarten and Kindergarten

 In pre-kindergarten and kindergarten, look for blocks and puzzles. Research shows that developing good spatial skills by learning how to put together different shapes is just as important to understanding math as learning to count. You should look for small objects (like buttons, plastic animals, or LEGOs) that children can touch, count, and sort. Even before children learn to write numerals, they need to get a sense of what numbers are. Counting objects builds an intuitive feel for math that teachers call “number sense.” Young children with good number sense quickly figure out amounts—who has more strawberries, for instance, or which pile of M&Ms is larger. This math sense is an important foundation for developing more advanced math skills later on. In pre-kindergarten, children should learn to count to 20; identify shapes such as circles and triangles; and know relative words including “big,” “small,” “tall,” and “short.” By the end of kindergarten they should be able to count to 100; write numbers from 1-20; and know words like “above,” “below,” “flat” and “solid,” according to the Common Core standards. 

First and Second Grades

In first and second grades, children should be learning to add and subtract. They need to understand the value of coins, learn how to tell time, and know how to measure distances. Look for a math area in the classroom with things like dice, play money, dominoes, and number lines. Also look for counting frames, clocks, pattern blocks, and rulers. Well-equipped classrooms have “manipulatives”—little plastic cubes kids can snap together to learn to add and subtract. Look for bundles of sticks used to represent “tens” and little cubes used to represent “ones” to help young students learn place value. Such tools help children understand the concepts underlying arithmetic, not just the rules for addition and subtraction. Classrooms often have a shelf with puzzles and games such as Sorry or Connect Four, which are fun ways for children to reinforce arithmetic skills, especially when they are indoors a lot during a long winter. Children are learning to talk about math and read word problems at this age, so look for lists of math words posted on the classroom wall to help them remember words like “sum” and “difference.” According to the Common Core standards, by the end of first grade, children should be able to add and subtract numbers up to 20; by the end of second grade, they should be able to add and subtract large numbers. 

Third Grade

In third grade, children learn multiplication and division. They need quick recall of math facts, so some drill is necessary. Look for worksheets, flashcards, and workbooks so children. Children also need to understand what multiplication and division really mean. For that, teachers may ask children to color rows of squares on graph paper, or to cut strips of paper a certain width and length. Third graders learn to calculate the area and perimeter of a rectangle. Sometimes classrooms have square plastic tiles that children can assemble into rectangles so they can see concretely what area and perimeter mean. Are the desks in rows? That probably means the teacher does most of the talking. But research shows kids understand math better if they talk about it and try different ways to solve problems. If you see desks in groups, it may mean children work on problems together—and that’s a good sign. By the end of third grade, children should have memorized the times tables up to 10 x 10 as well as division facts. They should also be able to calculate the perimeter and area of a rectangle, according to the Common Core standards.

Fourth and Fifth Grades

 Fourth graders need to be able to multiply and divide large numbers, and by fifth grade children should be able to multiply and divide fractions. You might see posters with drawings of problems such as: How can 8 children share 5 hero sandwiches fairly?  You may see charts showing the work kids have done to solve big word problems that require them to use all their math skills—addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and fractions. If children solve problems in different ways, that’s a good sign that they understand what they are doing and have not merely mastered a formula. Research shows children need both a deep understanding of math and the ability to solve arithmetic problems quickly, so look for evidence of both teaching approaches in the classroom. Numbers lined up in neat rows—the way most of today’s parents learned arithmetic—show a quick and efficient way to solve problems. Conversely, children’s written explanation of their work—part of most lessons today—is designed to demonstrate that they get the concepts. Math textbooks are fine, but good teachers draw on several different math programs or resources (think instructional YouTube videos or sites such as, which offers an array of activities as well as games for helping students practice key skills of the Common Core Standards) because not all kids learn in the same way. Some kids look at numerals on paper and understand them right away; others need pictures and objects to make sense of arithmetic. Some prefer worksheets and workbooks. Others need to count, use number lines, or use a computer. It’s helpful if there is variety. No one set of math books works for all kids; many of the best schools use elements from a variety of math books. One of the best things we can do as parents is to be aware, interested, and open. Learning math and science is a process. Keep an eye on these classroom clues and grade-level milestones, and take note of how your child learns best. In Part 2 we will address more specific 

Clara Hemphill, founder and senior editor of Insideschools, is the author of New York City’s Best Public Elementary Schools: A Parents’ Guide. Lydie Raschka, a writer at Insideschools, is a former public school teacher and a graduate of Bank Street College. is a project of the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School.

Published in Elementary Schools

Students who are new to New York City public schools or who are re-entering city schools after a time away, may register at special temporary enrollment centers beginning on Aug. 27 in all boroughs. The centers are open Monday-Friday, 8 am to 3 pm through Sept. 12, with the exception of Sept. 1, Labor Day. Regular enrollment centers will be closed from Aug. 22 to Sept. 15.

All high school students should go to the enrollment centers, along with any elementary and middle school students who do not have a zoned school. Elementary and middle school students who have a zoned school should wait until the first day of school, Sept. 4, to register at the school, the Education Department said.

All special education students who have a current IEP (Individualized Education Plan) may enroll directly at their zoned schools on Sept. 4. Students without a current New York City IEP, need to go to an enrollment center or to a special education site, for those with more restrictive needs.

Published in News and views

When I first found out in June that my son’s elementary school would be ending 30 minutes earlier this year and I would have to pick up two children at the same time, ten blocks apart, my first thought, of course, was, “Yes! Now I can harness those superpowers of time travel I always knew I possessed!” Actually, just one word came into my head, and it's unprintable here.

Apparently I’m not alone. According to The Daily News, about 450 schools will be changing their start and end times this year in order to comply with the new UFT contract. In a nutshell, the contract does two things as far as the school day is concerned: First, it elmininates 37.5 minutes each day that teachers were previously devoting to small-group work and tutoring for students who were behind. Second, it reapportions that time for professional development, parent communication, preparing lessons and all the other behind-the-scenes work that teachers must complete but never have time for.

Published in News and views
Tuesday, 22 July 2014 14:22

Help homeless kids get free backpacks

There are 22,000 kids living in homeless and domestic violence shelters in NYC, according to Volunteers for America. In addition to the trauma and chaos of a transient life, imagine the feeling of arriving for the first day of school in September, seeing all your friends toting shiny, full backpacks ready to learn, and you have ... nothing.

In 2001, Volunteers of America–Greater New York launched Operation Backpack—a fundraising initiative aimed at providing our city's neediest children with the supplies they need to start the school year right. By filling thousands of backpacks with grade-specific supplies, Operation Backpack relieves stressed families of an impossible financial burden, and most important, they help kids living on the fringes get a fighting chance at a solid education.

There are many ways to get involved. Visit the Operation Backpack website for a list of grade-specific supplies and backpack drop-off locations throughout the city. You can also make a straightforward monetary donation to the project, buy supplies for the foundation's amazon wishlist or donate your time in person. It's a wonderful opportunity to do something real and tangible for NYC education, and to show a struggling child you believe in her.

Published in News and views
Tuesday, 22 July 2014 10:53

Free summer fun

Perhaps that technology camp you enrolled your nature-loving daughter in just wasn’t quite right, or maybe you’ve noticed your teenager spending too many summer days staring at the wall—or a screen. Luckily, there are still lots of free, engaging summer classes and programs in all five boroughs for kids of all ages. It’s not too late! And don't forget to check out our listing of free educational enrichment programs year-round.

NYC Parks—Free Outdoor Pools

Visit one of New York City's free outdoor pools. Through Sept. 1, NYC Parks’ outdoor pools are offering amenities including free summer swim programs for all ages and abilities and free, healthy summer meals provided by USDA through SchoolFood, a part of the NYC Department of Education for all children 18 years old and under. Download a flyer to find out more about the local pool in your school district. For more information, visit

Published in News and views

The city's push to fill public school pre-kindergerten classrooms with 4-year-olds next fall seems to be working. Mayor Bill de Blasio announced today that 97 percent of the half-day and full-day pre-k seats were filled after the first round of applications, as compared to 91 percent at this time last year. But there were still far more applicants than seats available for school-based programs, and many families were disappointed to learn in letters today that they did not get a spot.

Only 62 percent of the 41,178 families who applied got one of 26,411 slots, compared to 70 percent in 2013. Roughly 45 percent of famlies got their first choice, according to Department of Education data. There are 715 vacant seats, most of them clustered in low-income areas such as District 23 in East New York, District 16 in Bedford Stuyvesant and in districts where many new seats were added, such as District 14 in Williamsburg and District 5 in Harlem.

Published in News and views

Sixty percent of students who applied to gifted and talented (G&T) programs in 2014 received offers. That’s an improvement from 2013 when 54 percent of applicants received offers after enduring a rocky admissions process marred by scoring errors and a subsequent lawsuit filed by parents. Overall, G&T offers still fall short of 2012 when 73 percent of all applicants received good news.

More students sat for the G&T this year than in either of the previous two years, but fewer scored high enough to be eligible for a G&T spot. This year the Department of Education (DOE) changed the G&T scoring process by giving equal weight to the test's two components: the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test (OLSAT) and the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test (NNAT2). In 2013, the NNAT2 comprised 66 percent and the OLSAT 33 percent of the total score.

As in previous years, admission to one of the five citywide G&T programs eluded most eligible students. While over 3,400 G&T test takers scored high enough—97th percentile or better—to qualify for a citywide G&T seat in grades k to 3, only a few hundred spots are available, and almost all of them go to those who score in the 99th percentile, or to eligible siblings of current citywide G&T students. The DOE has not released figures for how many were offered a citywide G&T seat this year, but last year roughly 300 earned a spot. After 3rd grade, placement in G&T programs is based on standardized state test scores.

Published in News and views

(This story first appeared on

Mayor Bill de Blasio has promoted his pre-K expansion as a way to help working families — but programs that last only about six hours a day aren't long enough for many New Yorkers, parents and advocates said.

Although the thousands of new public school pre-K seats being created this year are called "full-day," they run on a typical school day schedule, from about 8 a.m. to 2:20 p.m., with summers and vacations off.

That's why many low-income families have been turning to the 350 community-based organizations that provide pre-K classes that last 10 hours per day and run year-round. As part of city's Early Learn program, these organizations offer low-cost pre-K seats using federal, state and city funding.

However, the thousands of new pre-K seats de Blasio plans to create over the next two years at community-based organizations will only have enough funding to cover the school day schedule of about six hours a day, 10 months per year, officials said — raising concerns that they will not adequately serve some of the families de Blasio had pledged to help.

Published in News and views

(This story first appeared on Insideschools added a few clarifications based on our reporting.)

Astoria resident Janet Piechota filled out kindergarten applications earlier this year, she hoped to win a spot for her daughter at P.S. 85, which has strong music programs and other enrichment classes.

She was frustrated last week to discover that not only had her daughter Daniela not gotten into P.S. 85 — she hadn't gotten into any of the top four schools Piechota had selected, after she researched everything from the schools' dual-language classes to reviews of their parent coordinators.

Daniela was admitted to her zoned school, P.S. 234, which is well-regarded but was her mother's last choice because it appeared to her to lack some of the enrichment activities available at other nearby programs.

"I was disappointed," said Piechota. "It was a time-consuming process, to go through all these schools in advance."

Published in News and views
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