May 21, 2012 8:07 am
Severe learning disabilities in math, affecting up to 7 percent of all students, have been described as the mathematics version of dyslexia, the reading disorder in which people have trouble understanding or interpreting letters, words and symbols.
The math disorder -- dyscalculia -- has long been overlooked in the public schools, where the focus traditionally has been reading. Proof is the fact that few people have even heard the word that's pronounced as dis-kal-cue-LI-a in the United States and dis-kal-CUE-lia in England and among some domestic researchers.
Katherine Bomkamp, the 20-year-old West Virginia University student whose invention of the Pain Free Socket to help people with amputations has brought her international recognition, was diagnosed last month with dyscalculia, revealing failures in detecting the disability.
"I'd say it has largely been under the radar," said David C. Geary, a University of Missouri professor of psychological sciences, who is studying cognitive problems causing dyscalculia. "It's a little better than it used to be 20 years ago, but it still is not well recognized."
In severest form, dyscalculia makes it difficult for the person to understand cardinal numbers, math symbols and basic arithmetic. The disability is drawing greater attention, given United States' international ranking of 11th in math-achievement for fourth graders and ninth for eighth graders, according to the 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. United States' position is much lower in other international math rankings.
The National Institute of Child Health and Development has awarded $5.6 million in active grants to study dyscalculia, along with psychological, social and educational factors that can affect math competency. While math disabilities are nothing new, researchers still lack full understanding of why students face such problems, how best to screen for them, and the best way to help child diagnosed with cognitive disabilities in math.
Famous people with dyscalculia include Henry Winkler, Cher and Mary Tyler Moore, whose achievements in music and entertainment wouldn't necessarily require math proficiency. But the likes of Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin also are said to have had dyscalculia, with Bill Gates being a modern example, which more accurately might be described as math deficiencies rather than cognitive disabilities. At least in Einstein's case, he was able to overcome those deficiencies throughout his lifetime.
The focus for the past two decades has been reading disabilities, due to challenges reading disorders pose for people throughout life and in the job market.
But 4 to 7 percent of children have dyscalculia, with a much smaller percentage having the most severe cognitive problems that make it very difficult to achieve even a basic proficiency in arithmetic. Memorizing mathematical facts including multiplication tables, coupled with an inability to focus, and sometimes also coupled with dyslexia, can pose a cascade of difficulties for students to develop the ability to add, subtract, multiply, divide or make change. Dyscalculia represents the most severe degree of math disability.
"The bottom 25 percent range [of student standardized test scores] is where we probably expect long-term problems. A large proportion of those people don't have dyscalculia or a math disability," Mr. Geary said. "They may not like math, they may have had poor instruction, or they may be anxious about math. But if they get good instruction, they will do better.
"But others have cognitive deficiencies -- memory, delayed procedural development, problems understanding quantities -- that make it difficult to do well in math without specialized intervention," he said.
For public school educators, the lack of information and tools to deal with math disabilities creates frustration.
Nancy Jordan, a doctor of education at the University of Delaware, has developed the screening tool, "Number Sense Screener," published by Brookes Publishing, that's proven to be highly predictive of math disability in kindergarten and first grade.
"The problem is, people have reacted to U.S. students not doing well in math and have upped the demand," she said. "Expectations are higher, and while most children provided good instruction will meet the goals, others continue to have fundamental problems.
"Screening has gotten better, but we have a long way to go in understanding how to help kids in the best way -- kids who fall through the cracks," she said.
Reading problems are easily detected, regardless the subject. In math, awareness that a child is having a problem might not become clear until third grade, when it's already too late. By then, the child has fallen behind his or her classmates and already has experienced a sense of math failure, which makes remediation even harder to achieve.
Once the child is diagnosed with a math disability, an appropriate intervention is needed.
Lynn Fuchs, a doctor in special education and human development at Vanderbilt University, has developed intervention strategies for students with math disabilities in the first through fourth grades. Her program, "Number Rockets," is a small-group tutoring program to help students understand basic arithmetic and word problems requiring basic arithmetic.
Public school officials say they're doing their best they can to identify students with math disabilities and get them into special education programs as early as possible. But a more intensive screening and intervention process requires funding in an era when schools already are facing severe budget cuts.
For now, public schools rely on IQ tests to identify students with math disabilities. An intervention is used to determine whether the student responds favorably to instruction and can be placed in the regular math curriculum. If not, the child is place in special education. Charles Stephenson, a North Hills School District psychologist, described the process in greater detail.
While funding problems will hinder better math screening and intervention, other factors have muddied the math waters, including a historical gender bias that girls have less ability to understand math than boys. As is the case with Ms. Bomkamp, that bias may have hidden the fact she has dyscalculia.
"Reading by far has been the most researched intervention in the past 25 years," Mr. Stephenson said. "Math has taken a back seat to reading. First Published May 21, 2012 12:00 am