So many homeschool parents say, “I can’t do math and I fit in fine.” But science has shown that’s probably not true.

It turns out that math, more than any other subject, is one that kids cannot learn on their own and often need more than just a parent’s help with for homework. This means that math homework has become a de facto marker for status among school kids: Who can finish it and who can’t? Who is consistent with the relentless pace, and who falls behind? Math is also a status marker for parents. More than any other subject, a child’s math achievement correlates to the socioeconomic status of the parents.

So it’s no surprise that when I tell someone I homeschool my kids, the first response is, “How do they learn math?”

I used to get upset about the question. I used to say, why does everyone have to learn math? Who cares? Or I’d lecture people on the totally oversold idea that math is everywhere — music, cooking, street signs.

Now I now see that was a self-serving response from a parent who can’t teach math and doesn’t want to pay a lot for a math tutor. It’s clear now that homeschooling parents use math as a status marker for how carefully a child’s education was managed.

And that’s not unreasonable, because this is how colleges measure homeschooling as well. It’s an easy way to determine if the homeschooling curriculum was likely to have been rigorous. If a college knows you got a good grade in calculus, that covers about five years of math. So you don’t have to show five years of history for the college to believe that you didn’t waste all the rest of your time when you weren’t studying math.

Fair? Who knows. It’s how the world is. Fortunately, you don’t need to start teaching kids math until 6th grade. They learn everything they need to know until then on their own. Really. I did that with my son, and he got a 5 in AP Calculus. He is not a math genius. My point is proven. But I don’t need to prove this point, because we have had research since the 1930s that says we don’t need to teach math until 6th grade. It’s just been a very inconvenient truth, so we ignore it.

As a homeschooler you probably talk all the time about how parents ignore research that you like: play-based learning is best, boys suffer most in school, creativity is squashed in classrooms. But what happens when you read that a child’s sense of belonging is nurtured when they learn math? I bet you argue against it. It’s dangerous to wave research we like high up in the air and squash research we don’t like into little pieces.

I do that all the time. But I’m trying not to, so I’m telling you that even though Z. has a head injury and I really don’t think he needs to know more math than he already knows, I’m getting him a math tutor and I’m making sure he knows enough math to feel like he belongs.

I used to be a pain in the butt to him. I’d say, “How much is *enough* math? What does that even *mean*?” Now I know the answer. It’s enough math so he doesn’t have to worry when someone asks him how he learned math if he didn’t go to school. He doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life lecturing people about how they shouldn’t ask that question. He just wants to fit in. And I don’t blame him.

You know how kids/parents will whine about it and be like “when are we ever going to use this?” I don’t remember ever hearing a good answer for that question when I was a kid. Maybe something like, if you want to be a scientist you’ll need math. At the time I did want to be a scientist, so that motivated me, but it’s not a very good answer for most kids. Anyway, it wasn’t true. I studied computer science and the computer does the math for me. Who cares.

Tradespeople need math constantly. And they don’t usually have time to run numbers on a computer like someone would if they were sitting at a desk. I’m realizing this now because I just bought a house and there’s like ten million things that need fixing, and I’m trying to figure out which ones I can save money on by doing it myself.

Here’s an example – the soffits don’t have enough ventilation. How much do they need? Well you can figure out an answer by calculating the amount of air in the house, the amount of air in the attic, the amount of airflow between the two, and the amount of airflow leaving the existing soffit vents. Or you can overkill the problem and install soffit vents all the way around the house, which obviously costs way more.

How much paint do you need to cover 5 rooms and 8 door frames? How much lumber do you need to build a workbench? How many paving stones, and how much crushed rock, do you need to build an irregularly shaped patio? How many weekends will it take you to do these jobs yourself, and what would it cost to hire a professional instead? What’s the time/cost tradeoff? And is that contractor taking you for a ride?

As soon as you start doing carpentry, you need to know how to add, subtract and divide fractions in your head. The faster and more accurately you can do it, the quicker you can get on with the fun part, which is cutting and drilling stuff. But if you get it wrong, you waste wood (expensive!!!!) and have to redo your work.

And I haven’t even mentioned plumbing and electrical…

No one ever bothered to mention these things in school, and it probably doesn’t matter to your genius college-bound kids either. But I bet you math teachers would find it much easier to interest a certain type of student by using those types of scenarios.

I appreciated reading this post. Perhaps it would be helpful to point out to the homeschooling parent that it’s not just homeschooling parents who freak out about math instruction – it’s all parents.

Parents who homeschool, parents who send their kids to public school, even parents who send kids to private school. Maybe especially parents who send their kids to private school. Because these parents are usually strivers, who really don’t want their kids to be behind any other kids, ever. When a school separates kids into different groups to teach math, parents get freaked out that their kid is not in the top group. Even if none of the groups actually gets ahead of the others. Even if the separation into groups has nothing to do with advancement in the following grade.

Almost all the private school parents send their kids to Russian Math after school anyway. They talk about it all the time. They compare which level or group of Russian Math their kids are in with other parents’ kids. It’s one of the half-dozen things they shuttle their kids among after school (and one of the half-dozen things they obsessively compare their children on the basis of).

It doesn’t end.

Your first link referred to “pressure from privileged parents,” and I sure know what that looks like now. I enjoyed parts of that paper (“rigor theater,” lol) but other parts – like the assumption that parents must help kids with daily homework – are terribly limited.

The reason for daily busywork isn’t the student, it’s the teacher, who has dozens of students and must have something they can easily give a point for without reading it. It’s like what Twain said, if they had more time they’d assign less homework. If teachers assign so much homework that parents have to help the kids with it, they’re doing education wrong. Kids should be able to do their homework by themselves – otherwise it becomes another part of the parent competition instead of part of the kids learning things.

The worst part is how useless math education has become in the United States. I was talking with my son about it this morning. Education has a sort of recuperation function, like how any kind of rebellion against consumerism can be recuperated by capitalism into a salable trend. In math education, any simplifying insight can be recuperated into another opportunity for meaningless hoop-jumping.

One has the insight that math problems can be solved in different ways? Great, now math education will require the kids to learn and present three different ways to solve the same problems, some quite baroque in their absurdity. Points off if you haven’t drawn weird little boxes on your paper in the exact way teacher told you; it doesn’t matter if you have the answer right.

My daughter says math teachers can always figure out a way to make something simple more difficult. She’d rather learn by herself. Khan Academy has it all, and if she has a question she can ask me or her brother. We cut a deal with the teachers (they have few enough students that they can deal with this) that she only has to do half the work in class, to show she gets it, and then she can do her own math work. The other day she had questions about finding X and Y intersects, and I helped her understand over a cheeseburger, and she returned to moving forward by herself. It would have taken days for a math teacher to explain that in class, and I did it over a burger.

My kids don’t do math because they have to, they do it because it’s fun, like other puzzles. Their frustration comes from the bizarre rituals schools have made around math. Belonging? Maybe not so much in math class. My daughter is happy she can always answer her friends’ questions about math, and that’s nice. Maybe she’d get a better sense of belonging from a math class that could move at her speed, as joyously as she does, but no school will provide that. Where would the RIGOR be, without suffering?

If your goal is to have Z experience the culturally important feeling of hating math, you should sign him up for Russian Math.

Bostonian, I love when you write blog posts in the comments section. Thank you. Here’s my favorite part of what you wrote: “Education has a sort of recuperation function, like how any kind of rebellion against consumerism can be recuperated by capitalism into a salable trend. In math education, any simplifying insight can be recuperated into another opportunity for meaningless hoop-jumping.” Its poetic and brilliant. I can’t wait to tell my son who is trying to unionize his colleges food services workers. He’s always looking for more angles on how capitalism infiltrates everything we do.I have also been thinking a lot about Russian math. How we are looking the wrong way when we’re looking at school curriculum because Russian math makes it irrelevant. Sort of like Suzuki makes in-school music lessons irrelevant. And Pimsleur/Berlitz makes in-school language lessons irrelevant. Well, not irrelevant, but there is such an incredibly faster way to do things if you have money.

Penelope