Q and A with Numeracy Boost Math Master

Shirin Lutfeali

Shirin Lutfeali is one of the architects behind Save the Children's new math program for elementary school children called "Numeracy Boost." Shirin got her start as a public school teacher in Los Angeles and New York City, and has made it her life's work to increase teacher quality and improve learning outcomes for children around the globe. We quizzed Shirin on why math matters to Save the Children, how "Numeracy Boost" works and how she became a math devotee.

Why did Save the Children decide to focus on math?

Through our work in many countries around the globe, we recently found that elementary school children are struggling with basic reading and math. For example, in Malawi, only 10 percent of 4th graders were able to correctly solve a simple subtraction problem (18 minus 7). This is not good! But we have a solution — our new math program called "Numeracy Boost."

Can you describe how it works?

Numeracy Boost works at three levels: the student, the teacher, and the community. First, we measure what students already know about math. Second, we give teachers concrete skills in math to help develop their students' math knowledge and understanding.

Finally, we know that math isn't just a subject taught in a classroom — math is everywhere! So the third piece involves families and communities in activities like family math days and math camps that have kids and families doing fun math projects together — like cooking, going to the market, harvesting — activities that show how math is a big part of everyone's daily lives.

How do you launch Numeracy Boost in a community?

Before rolling out Numeracy Boost in any community, we measure what children already know about math. We gather information on the math skills of kids who will be enrolled in Numeracy Boost as well as those who will not participate in the program. By measuring both groups, we can track the progress of Numeracy Boost students' over the year, and see what is working. We use the findings to improve our programs and to guide our work.

We also work with education officials to make sure "Numeracy Boost" is connected to the country's national math curriculum in schools. We share our progress and results with the government. Our ultimate goal is to have national governments take over this program and include it in their math curriculum.

What kinds of activities can parents do with their kids to practice math skills at home?

Parents can do all sorts of simple thing. While cooking, parents can ask children questions about size, length, quantity and shapes of the vegetables, lentils, and other items they are preparing. While at the market, they can discuss how much items cost and what they can buy for a certain amount of money.

The important thing is for parents to engage children in thinking about math concepts and to increase the amount of 'math talk' — incorporating math vocabulary into their daily lives. The more exposure kids get to 'math talk' at an early age, the better prepared they will be when they encounter math in the classroom and in the real world.

What inspired Save the Children's "A World with No Math" campaign?

Most Americans have a very strong reaction to math from their school days. They either love it or loathe it. They think of math as a subject in school and less as a something you do every day. We wanted people to stop and think about what a world with no math would look like — and have a good laugh along the way!

Through the "A World with No Math" campaign, we hope to get people talking about math and motivate them to start fundraising for the cause through folks already backing the campaign, including Julia Bowmen ("Modern Family"), Michael Boatman ("Anger Management"), Simon Helberg ("The Big Bang Theory") and John Oliver ("The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.") We are extremely grateful to a team from "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" who wrote and produced the video as a volunteer project.

How did you become a math devotee?

I have always been interested in math. My dad owns gift stores and as a teenager, one of my first jobs was running the cash register at his store. I got pretty good at mental math, calculating discounts, and making sure to give out correct change! On the ride home after work, my dad would 'test' my knowledge of the products at his store and my math skills as well. He'd give me an item and I'd have to supply the price and calculate how much the item cost after adding sales tax. At the time I would groan and complain, but now I realize what valuable math skills my dad was helping me develop.