If your child’s school falls short in effectively teaching your child math and science or providing the resources necessary to engage him, there is much you can do to help.

Volunteer at the school.

  • Start a chess or robotics club after school or during lunch. Shewonia Bowman, an engineer and the mother of two girls, started an early morning math club with interactive games at PS 199 in Manhattan.
    • Help children plant a school vegetable garden to teach them about nutrition and the environment.
    • Chaperone or extend other help on a relevant field trip; excursions to area museums are good ways to bolster science in the school curriculum, for example. 

“Repeat after me.”

If your child’s school is good at teaching the concepts of math but doesn’t teach quick recall of facts, you may want to supplement at home with more timed drills, a computer program or flash cards. 
  • If your child doesn’t respond to old- fashioned memorization drills, look for songs or other ways to memorize facts using pictures or objects. For example, you can teach your child to “skip count” by the dreaded 7s by 
setting the numbers to the tune of “Happy Birthday”: 7, 14, 21 / 28, 35 / 42, 49 / 56, 63...
  • Visit mathabc.com, a free website loaded with drills, to help with memorization of multiplication tables.

Get creative.

  • Introduce games such as Yahtzee or Scrabble at home and let the kids keep score. 
  • Engage kids in studies when they’re actively doing something else they love. One parent got her son a mini-trampoline, and he was much more open to practicing facts when paired with jumping up and down.

  • Help your children conduct real research: Citizen Science enlists ordinary citizens to count pigeons in cooperation with Cornell University; scientists use the data in their published work. In Project Bud Burst kids find a bush and watch it during the season when the bush opens a bud; it’s a sensitive measure for global climate.

  • If the teaching leans too much in the direction of “drill and kill,” give your kids the opportunity to try tangrams, mazes, 2-D puzzles, shapes, origami and visual puzzles.

  • Take a free workshop offered by NYU’s Courant Institute, where you can pick up ideas such as making shapes out of toothpicks and gumdrops to talk about vertices, faces and edges. Courant will suggest you Google “DAT = Dental Admissions Test” to find puzzles that help kids ‘see’ math concepts.

Go on educational family outings.

  • Visit the Museum of Mathematics in Manhattan. This dynamic and interactive museum, which focuses on enhancing public understanding and perception of math in daily life, is the first of its kind in the country.
  • Take your kids to the annual Maker Faire, a technology and science extravaganza with lots of free hands-on activities, held every September at the New York Hall of Science in Queens. Stop by NYSCI any time of year for the wide array of programs for kids, featur- ing more than 450 interactive exhibits. The center’s most popular exhibition, Sports Challenge, combines the fields of physics, physiology and material science to explain the science behind your child’s favorite sport, including baseball, surfing, and drag racing.
  • Make a wish-list of places—opportunities to engage with science 
at cultural institutions in our area abound!—that includes the following suggestions, then head out with the kids on slow weekends or evenings when after-school activities are light:
  • American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan; the Bronx Zoo; Liberty Science Center across the Hudson in nearby New Jersey; the Greenburgh Nature Center, a short train ride away in Scarsdale; the New York Aquarium in Brooklyn’s Coney Island; the Town of Ramapo Challenger Center in Rockland County, where kids can be astronauts for a day; the Science Museum of Long Island in Manhasset; the Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk, CT; and the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem.
  • Find free after-school activities that provide science and math enrichment throughout New York City on our free programs page.

Find the beauty.

We want our children to think of math and science as beautiful, not merely useful. Pamela Liebeck, author of How Children Learn Mathematics, says math appeals to kids in much the same way art and music do—based on their intellectual or aesthetic response. Math and science should be appealing—because if it is, kids will want to do more of it.

Published in Elementary Schools

1. Female teachers unwittingly passed their own math anxiety onto their female students in an article based on the work of Sian L. Beilock, et.al., called: “Female Teachers’ Math Anxiety Affects Girls’ Math Achievement.”

2. When science and literacy lessons are integrated, students demonstrate greater skill in all of these areas, writes Gina N. Cervetti, et. al., in a paper titled, “A Model of Science-Literacy Integration.”

3. Many girls believe math ability is fixed—it’s a gift you have or do not have. Girls who believe math is an acquired set of skills do better, according to Carol S. Dweck, in her book: Mindset.

4. The early years are important: Number sense in first grade predicts math ability in middle school, say Geary, Hoard, Bailey & Nugent in “Adolescents’ Functional Numeracy Is Predicted by their School Entry Number System Knowledge.”

5. Stereotype threat can impact student academic performance, according to author Claude Steele in his book: Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do.

6. Blocks and puzzles can help school readiness; using words such as “between,” “under,” “shorter,” and “longer” can help kids better understand spatial problem-solving tasks, says lead author Brian N. Verdine in “Finding the Missing Piece: Blocks, Puzzles, and Shapes Fuel School Readiness.”

7. National Girls Collaborative Project presents research focused on what works to engage and support girls in Science, Technology, Math and Engineering at ngcproject.org.

8. Games for Math: Playful Ways to Help Your Child Learn Math, From Kindergarten to Third Grade by Peggy Kaye is a user-friendly book filled with math games to play at home.

9. Build number sense as you browse and discuss this picture book with your child aged 4-8: Anno’s Counting Book, by Mitsumasa Anno.

10. In addition to games and puzzles, Family Math by Jean K. Stenmark, et.al., includes a step-by-step description of how to organize a “family math” class at your child’s school.

Published in Elementary Schools

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.

How to spark kids' curiosity

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 can practice basic math facts until they have become automatic. 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 Engageny.com, 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.

Published in Elementary Schools
Monday, 27 October 2014 11:26

What to Look For in the Classroom

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.

Read More

I am the proud parent of a bright, creative, and unique daughter with learning disabilities. Like many children with high-incidence disabilities, my daughter outperforms in certain academic areas and underperforms in others. From kindergarten until 3rd grade, she relied on these skills and managed in a general education classroom with some extra services. She had caring, committed teachers, well versed in different learning styles. 

By the second week of 3rd grade, however, it became clear that she would have problems. The rapid implementation of Common Core Standards combined with an unsympathetic classroom teacher made her deteriorate—academically, emotionally and socially. The principal told me that an integrated co-teaching (ICT) class—with two teachers, one a special ed expert—did not exist for her grade. I tried to switch to a nearby public school with more services, but because of 2011’s special ed reform, I was told she now had to be served by her zoned school, and they were giving her all that they could. 

Published in News and views
Thursday, 02 October 2014 10:14

Good riddance to A-F school grades!

Say goodbye to the controversial school grading system developed under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Starting this school year, parents will no longer be able to judge schools by their A to F rankings, which were designed to be a simple way to see whether their child's school was succeeding or failing.

Instead, Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña wants parents to look beyond test scores to see what is actually happening inside their children's classrooms and promises the Department of Education will do the same. "Schools are not restaurants," quipped Fariña, "they have unique qualities that need to be captured in different ways."

Fariña announced the new plan for evaluating schools yesterday at PS 503/PS 506 in Sunset Park. She said that before the end of the calendar year, new School Quality Snapshots will be released for all schools and available online for parents to read. They will highlight key results from several different data sources the DOE already collects, including the annual school survey and the Quality Review conducted by experts who visit the school. While test scores will still be included, they will not be the sole focus, nor will they be used to penalize a school that does poorly.

Published in News and views

Ahh, it’s that time of year again. The pumpkins are out, and sunscreen and sandals have given way to light jackets and boots. There’s no denying it: gifted and talented testing is upon us.

Two years ago, I documented my elder son’s attempt to penetrate the exciting, if somewhat notorious world of gifted and talented testing in New York City. Several Pearson debacles and rejection letters later, our son ended up happy and thriving at a wonderful neighborhood school. And although the G&T testing experience taught me a great deal and yielded a few laughs, I secretly vowed then that unless my youngest son was clearly a savant—say, reciting Chaucer and analyzing Bayesian statistics—I’d spare him the hours seated with strangers asking him weird questions.

My husband disagrees. In his opinion, “Delta Force”—my sweet little powerhouse of a 4-year-old—gets the shaft in everything. He wears his brother's old shoes and gets less attention, so how dare we deny him this opportunity. "And besides," he explained, "I want to know how smart he is." 

Published in News and views

Obviously, you want to ask questions as part of friendly curiosity, not grilling the teacher. Remember, you both have your children’s best interest at heart. Here are some ideas for questions:

How do you challenge the best students and help struggling learners?

Reaching children of different abilities in the same class is one of a teacher’s most difficult tasks, particularly when it comes to math. Most teachers know how to find books to match a child’s reading level, but they often pitch math lessons to the whole group in order to cover a certain amount of material.

The best schools ensure the brightest children can move ahead of their peers, either by working on more complex problems or by working independently 
on math websites such as Khan Academy (khanacademy.org). They also ensure struggling kids get the help they need, often in small groups inside or outside the classroom.

Faster learners shouldn’t be told to read a book while other children finish their work. They should be working on math during math time. It’s okay if a teacher occasionally asks them to double-check their work or to help their peers, but faster learners need a chance to do more advanced work.

At PS 172 in Brooklyn, we sat in on a fifth grade math class in which the teacher managed to adapt the same complex problem for different children: If two teachers, shopping together, each buy a pair of shoes at a “buy one, get one for half-price” sale, what’s the fairest way to divide the cost? Some children worked on the problem independently or in pairs, others got little hints from the teacher, and still others got step-by-step instructions from the second teacher in the class, who is trained in special education. At the end of the period, all children sat on a rug and discussed how they arrived at the answer.

Does the school do anything to encourage girls in math?

Girls often get discouraged by math early in their school careers. Good schools work to bolster girls’ confidence and break down stereotypes about girls not liking math. These schools encourage girls to build with blocks and LEGOs, join the math or robotics club, and hang out in the computer lab with the technology teacher during lunch. Mentors count: Girls often model their behavior after their female teachers. It’s particularly important for female teachers not to say, “I wasn’t good at math.” Research shows female teachers often unwittingly pass on their own insecurity about math to their female pupils.

Do you have any math and science partnerships?

Some schools hire consultants to train teachers in challenging math curricula such as Math in Focus, based on math programs in Singapore. Many schools have partnerships with colleges, museums or established science programs.

Children in grades second through fourth learn environmental awareness and about preservation of bird habitats as part of an Audubon Society’s program called “For the Birds!” (learn more at ny.audubon.org/birds-1). Similarly, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology distributes grants to teachers and assists youngsters in high-quality data collection about birds in urban areas (read about its programs at birds.cornell.edu).

In a project called Tomatosphere, children at PS 205 in Queens grow tomato seeds in conditions designed to simulate those on a trip to Mars. They contribute data to the Canadian Space Agency’s project studying the feasibility of growing edible plants on long journeys in space.

The Center for Architecture Foundation helps children at PS 42, PS 199 and other schools build models such as a long house, a tenement building, and a skyscraper to show New York City’s history and development through 200 years of architecture.

Are there ways for students to get involved with math and science outside the regular school day?

Schools that have a strong math and science focus often have robotics, math or chess clubs during lunch or after school. Children involved in some of these programs may even take part in national competitions.

How much time is spent on test prep?

The best schools don’t make a major production of math and science tests. In strong schools teachers spend a little time each day about one or two months prior to the tests getting kids used to the format, but most learning is part of a well thought-out plan of regular lessons throughout the school year. Children are tested in math every year, beginning in third grade. Children are only tested in science in the fourth grade. Something to watch out for: After years of no science, kids suddenly get four days a week of science in the fourth grade— so the school looks good on a test.

What Does Your Child Say?

Another telling clue to successful STEM education: Is your child talking about math and science? Does she bring her enthusiasm home?

One mother we spoke to as part of our project said that her son was thrilled to tell her what he learned about migration when he tallied the number of pigeons in his neighborhood over time as part of a project at the Brooklyn New School. First-graders at Midtown West in Manhattan ask their parents to help them find simple machines at home—a flip-top lid (a.k.a., a lever) and a doorstop (for scientific purposes, a wedge).
 Does your child use words such as “carnivore,” “porous,” “sediment,” “volcanic ash” or “metamorphosis”? Good science instruction builds a child’s vocabulary.

It’s a good sign if kids are thinking about math and not just doing it, according to Mark Saul, Ph.D., director of the Center for Mathematical Talent at New York University. Can your child use a measuring cup to double a recipe while cooking with you? Or figure out how long it will take for Grandma and Grandpa to arrive by looking at the clock and doing the math? How about determine approximate mileage for a family trip by looking at a map? Those are all good signs.

Don’t worry too much if you find your children’s homework confusing— many parents do. And don’t force them to do math the way you did, Dr. Saul says. Instead, be curious about the way your kids are doing it. Ask them questions; don’t dole out answers. Acknowledge them for trying hard and not giving up. Research shows persistence is what counts in the long run— not getting everything right the first time.

If your children are engaged and show curiosity themselves, things are probably okay. If they avoid homework or race through it—if they are bored, anxious, or confused—there may be a problem.

Some schools send home different homework packets depending on a child’s ability. Teachers at PS 59 in Manhattan send home a customized plan for each child including reading levels and math strengths, with games kids and parents may play together to support math concepts and skills they’ve studied in school. They send home pictures of math strategy charts used in class so parents can also reference them at home, and post ideas on a web page.

The specifics of what your child talks about will vary based on his classroom experiences, but rest assured, if he’s engaged and truly learning math and science, he’ll likely be enthusiastic about what he shares.

Published in Elementary Schools

Which elementary schools offer a great education in math and science?

We scoured the city for schools that give ordinary kids an extraordinary education—zoned neighborhood schools, not gifted programs or schools with a special application process. We picked schools that are willing to open their doors and share their knowledge—in the hopes that these might serve as models for others. We chose schools with good test scores, but we avoided ones with too much test prep or paper-and-pencil drills. Most of all, we picked schools that foster a love of math and science while giving children the skills they need to be successful later in life.

Here are our favorites.


PS 171, East Harlem
Why we picked it: Where else do little kids use words like "heart valve?"

Teachers at PS 171 know that science lessons build children's vocabularies—and that helps them read better. All children—even pre-kindergartners—go to the science lab three times a week for lessons taught by a certified science teacher. Children build models of cells out of clay and write essays about the use of animal parts in medicine, using sophisticated words like "heart valves" and "livers" to support their arguments. Kids take trips to science museums and study ducks in Central Park, building their general knowledge along with their vocabularies. (Pauline Zaldonis)

PS 42, Lower East Side/Chinatown
Why we picked it: Second-graders learn geometry and physics by studying bridges

PS 42 integrates science and math into well-planned interdisciplinary units. For example, 2nd-graders research bridges of the world, explore bridge geometry and physics, create bridge-inspired 3-D art, hear architects speak about their jobs and take fields trips to Battery Park to see real bridges. Children at the school have outstanding math scores and reading scores that are well above the citywide average—quite an accomplishment since more than one-third of them are learning English as a second language. (Anna Schneider)

Published in News and views

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
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