"Can you help me understand why your son had so much trouble with this math problem?" a veteran first grade teacher asked my friend E at a recent parent-teacher conference.
The problem: "explain what this graph shows." The graph: a representation of the latest class survey results. Her son's answer: a sentence about one thing it showed.
E was happy to see that her son had actually written a whole sentence. To her, the source of his "trouble" was obvious: he hates writing. The only thing that surprised her was that a teacher was interpreting a six-year-old's verbal brevity as "trouble with math."
Such entanglement of grade school math with language arts dates back to the 1989 NCTM Standards, with its emphasis on communicating about math. NCTM is particularly zealous about this when the topic is representations (e.g., graphs).
So zealous that an intelligent, veteran teacher mistakes writing blocks for math deficiency. And assigns a report card grade of 2 (basic) on a 1-4 (4=advanced) scale to a child who is actually quite good at math--at least as measured by the ease with which he solves the non-writing-intensive math problems that E gives him at home.