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What to ask the teacher

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.

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