TROY, N.Y. » David Javsicas, a popular seventh-grade reading teacher known for urging students to act out dialogue in the books they read in class, sometimes feels wistful for the days when he taught math.
A quiz, he recalls, could quickly determine which concepts students had not yet learned. Then, "you teach the kids how to do it, and within a week or two you can usually fix it," he said.
Helping students to puzzle through different narrative perspectives or subtext or character motivation, though, can be much more challenging. "It could take months to see if what I’m teaching is effective," he said.
Educators, policymakers and business leaders often fret about the state of math education, particularly in comparison with other countries. But reading comprehension may be a larger stumbling block.
At Troy Prep Middle School, a charter school near Albany that caters mostly to low-income students, teachers are finding it easier to help students hit academic targets in math than in reading , an experience repeated in schools across the country.
Students entering the fifth grade at Troy Prep are often several years behind in both subjects, but last year, 100 percent of seventh-graders scored at a level of proficient or advanced on state standardized math tests. In reading, by contrast, just over half of the seventh-graders met comparable standards.
The results are similar across the 31 other schools in the Uncommon Schools network, which enrolls low-income students in Boston; New York City; Rochester, N.Y.; and Newark, N.J. After attending an Uncommon school for two years, said Brett Peiser, the network’s chief executive, 90 percent of students score at a proficient or advanced level in math, while just over a third reach those levels in reading over the same period.
"Math is very close-ended," Peiser said. Reading difficulties, he said, tend to be more complicated to resolve.
"Is it a vocabulary issue? A background knowledge issue? A sentence length issue? How dense is the text?" Peiser said, rattling off a string of potential reading roadblocks. "It’s a three-dimensional problem that you have to attack. And it just takes time."
Uncommon’s experience is not so uncommon. Other charter networks and school districts similarly wrestle to bring struggling readers up to speed while having more success in math.
In a Mathematica Policy Research study of schools run by KIPP, one of the country’s best-known charter operators, researchers found that on average, students who had been enrolled in KIPP middle schools for three years had test scores that indicated they were about 11 months – or the equivalent of more than a full grade level – ahead of the national average in math. In reading, KIPP’s advantage over the national average was smaller, about eight months.
Among large public urban districts — which typically have large concentrations of poor students — six raised eighth-grade math scores on the federal tests known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress from 2009 to 2011. Only one — in Charlotte, N.C. — was able to do so in reading.
Studies have repeatedly found that "teachers have bigger impacts on math test scores than on English test scores," said Jonah Rockoff, an economist at Columbia Business School, and a co-author of a study that showed that teachers who helped students raise standardized test scores had a lasting effect on those students’ future incomes, as well as other lifelong outcomes.
Teachers and administrators who work with children from low-income families say one reason teachers struggle to help these students improve reading comprehension is that deficits start at such a young age: In the 1980s, psychologists Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley found that by the time they are 4 years old, children from poor families hear 32 million fewer words than children with professional parents.
By contrast, children learn math predominantly in school.
"Your mother or father doesn’t come up and tuck you in at night and read you equations," said Geoffrey Borman, a professor at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the University of Wisconsin. "But parents do read kids bedtime stories, and kids do engage in discussions around literacy, and kids are exposed to literacy in all walks of life outside of school."
Reading also requires background knowledge of cultural, historical and social references. Math is a more universal language of equations and rules.
"Math is really culturally neutral in so many ways," said Scott Shirey, executive director of KIPP Delta Public Schools in Arkansas. "For a child who’s had a vast array of experiences around the world, the Pythagorean theorem is just as difficult or daunting as it would be to a child who has led a relatively insular life."
Education experts also say that reading development simply requires that students spend so much more time practicing.
And while reading has been the subject of fierce pedagogical battles, "the ideological divisions are not as great on the math side as they are on the literacy side," said Linda Chen, deputy chief academic officer in the Boston Public Schools. In 2011, 29 percent of eighth-graders eligible for free lunch in Boston scored at proficient or advanced levels on federal math exams, compared with just 17 percent in reading.
At Troy Prep, which is housed in a renovated warehouse, teachers work closely with students to help them overcome difficulties in both math and reading, breaking classes into small groups. But the relative challenges of teaching both subjects were evident on a recent morning.
During a fifth-grade reading class, students read aloud from "Bridge to Terabithia" by Katherine Paterson. Naomi Frame, the teacher, guided the students in a close reading of a few paragraphs. But when she asked them to select which of two descriptions fit Terabithia, the magic kingdom created by the two main characters, the class stumbled to draw inferences from the text.
Later, in math class, the same students had less difficulty following Bridget McElduff as she taught a lesson on adding fractions with different denominators. At the beginning of the class, McElduff rapidly called out equations involving two fractions, and the students eagerly called back the answers.
Because the students were already familiar with the basic principles – finding the greatest common factor, then reducing – they quickly caught on when she asked them to add three fractions.
New curriculum standards known as the Common Core that have been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia could raise the bar in math.
"As math has become more about talking, arguing and writing, it’s beginning to require these kinds of cultural resources that depend on something besides school," said Deborah L. Ball, dean of the school of education at the University of Michigan.
Teachers and administrators within the Uncommon network are confident that they will eventually crack the nut in reading.
One solution: Get the students earlier. Paul Powell, principal of Troy Prep, said the school, which added kindergarten two years ago and first grade last fall, would add second-, third- and fourth-grade classes over the next three years.
Over time, teachers hope to develop the same results in reading that they have produced in math. Already, students at high school campuses in the Uncommon network in New York City and Newark post average scores on SAT reading tests that exceed the national average for white students.
"I don’t think there is very much research out there to say that when you can take a student who is impoverished and dramatically behind, that you can fix it in three years," said Javsicas, the seventh-grade reading teacher who also coordinates special education at Troy Prep. "But I do think the signs seem fairly positive that if we can take kids from kindergarten and take them through 12th grade, I think we can get there."