In my experience as a teacher I found that it was rare to have children who genuinely struggled to understand maths. There was maybe 1 in my class, some years there were none. I'm now wondering whether those kids genuinely had dyscalculia.
But kids who were 'behind' and in my lowest group?....about 3 or 4 every year. These are the kids I'm thinking about this morning. When I think back I wonder how they got to be 'behind'. In some cases they took a bit longer to grasp new concepts, or they didn't have the greatest ability to commit new learning to long term memory so learning facts was slow and hard work. But I also remember that many of those children weren't coming to school ready to learn.
What some of those kids faced on a daily basis would shock many parents in NZ who are unaware of the level of dysfunction and difficulty in some homes. Some kids were arriving at school stressed, hungry, tired and possibly sick or in pain. Their minds were sometimes on their mothers who were so hungover they didn't get up that morning, their parents who were screaming at each other all night, or maybe the violence they witnessed or suffered. At the less extreme end they may have been up half the night gaming or there was a party that went late or maybe they had to be up late as they accompanied their hard-working parents to their evening cleaning jobs. Or maybe they were arriving for their third day at my school and this was the fourth school they had attended in three years.
The point is, those kids were over-represented in my lower maths groups and my colleagues' lower maths groups. In some cases we were making great progress with them (along with all the other peripheral support) and then they would suddenly leave. That feeling when you arrive at school to be told they've gone? Empty. Helpless. Frustrated.
In other cases they just weren't able to focus or learn effectively. They yawned. They hated being behind. They worked hard. They stared out the window. They cheated to look 'smarter'. They were proud when they learned something new. They doodled on the worksheet. They loved being able to help someone else. They didn't ask for help. They always asked for help. They tried. We tried.
When we talk about improving maths achievement for that bottom 20% of kids it seems to me that we don't talk about the real issues. Many of those kids don't come to school ready to learn. No amount of teacher education is going to change that fact.