COVID crushed math grades. There's an app for that

Jennifer Jolly
Special to USA TODAY

It’s been a full year now since Covid-19 shut down schools across America. Whether your kids are back to in-person classes, remote learning, or doing some hybrid of both – there’s still a ton of school work that has to get done at home – and math in particular has taken a huge hit. 

Two national testing programs used widely by U.S. public schools show major declines in math performance, especially for middle-schoolers. 

Education analysts predict U.S. students could learn half – or up to a full year – less math during the pandemic school year. And according to a recent poll, 56% – more than half of parents in America – struggle to help kids with math homework.  

“A lot of parents are not ready to be their kids' teacher or math tutor,” Jennifer Lee, VP Strategy/Growth of top math app Photomath tells me over Zoom. “Math has changed so much, even how it was taught 10-20 years ago versus how it’s taught today.” 

Common Core math + COVID-19 = Confusion

You’re telling me. I ran into trouble helping my daughter with math concepts around the 5th grade. Why? Common Core and the so-called “new math” is a nightmare for those of us who know full well how to solve most basic math problems, just not the crazy-making, convoluted way it’s being taught today. 

The challenge is so well known that it’s deeply embedded in pop-culture with a slew of memes, mentions in movies, and social media shout-outs. It even stars as the protagonist in the new Instagram-famous 24hourplay, “New Math,” by Mfoniso Udofia

In it, the actors – and parents IRL – Crystal Dickinson and Brandon J. Dirden – fight about who’s turn it is to help their Kindergarten-age son with his math homework. “Today is my day for writing and your day FOR MATH,” Brandon spits out in that tone that warns he’s about to blow. “I hate “new math,” Crystal then admits in a rush, before going on a recognizable rant of her own. “Why can’t the answer just be three? You know, like with simple addition and subtraction?!” Brandon comforts Crystal as she cries into her hands. “I know baby,” he shushes. “I hate words in my math too.” 

It's all so relatable. 

Photomath App

There's an app for that

Brandon and Crystal – and any parents who can relate – need an app called Photomath (iOS, Android). Of all the apps and tech tools I’ve used to help my daughter over the years, this is the one I could not get by without. It’s also among the top three most-downloaded education apps in the world, with more than “220-million app downloads and over two billion math problems solved,” according to Lee. 

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The way it works is pretty remarkable. Download it on your smartphone, then hover it over any problem, whether it’s on a screen, in a textbook, or even something you’ve just scribbled down. Push the red snapshot button on the screen, and it uses a mix of computer vision, machine learning, and the insight of some of the smartest math minds in the world – to provide an answer. What’s really great though, is that it walks you through each step and explains the process of how to solve each problem. You can also use it in calculator mode and get step-by-step explanations too. 

The basic version of Photomath is free, with a premium version that costs $59.99 a year. Photomath Plus adds features such as textbook solutions and problem-solving animations. Later this year, Photomath plans to roll out a tutoring feature with live help from experts as well.

16-year-old Sayef Husain of St. Augustine, Florida does his math homework with the help of the Photomath app.

“I love math, especially now that I’m getting better at it.” 16-year old 10th grader Sayef Husain tells me via Zoom from his home in St. Augustine, Florida. “But I’m not naturally gifted in math,” he adds.

Sayef’s mom, Sabrina, says her son first started having trouble with math concepts in the fourth grade, and she wasn’t much help at home. “It was just so different from what I did years ago,” she says. She enrolled Sayef in Kumon in-person tutoring classes then but says that’s not an option now, due to Covid restrictions, as well as cost. 

Kumon charges $50 to register, $15 more material fees, and anywhere from $90-$180 per month depending on location. 

Photomath App

Sabrina says their experience with Photomath has been a pleasant surprise – for both of them. “I’m very, very happy,” Sabrina said. “His math grades have been very good, and he recently took the ACT assessment and got a 95% on that.” 

“If I’m speaking honestly,” Sayef adds, “I just would not have the grade I have right now (without the Photomath app), especially with COVID. I’ve been using it often, like just before this interview, I was just in math class using it to help better understand the (pre-calculus) that I’m doing.” 

“It’s been a wonderful app for us too,” Scott Nichols, father of two teen sons, tells me over Zoom from his home in Corsica, South Dakota. “With the lockdown and trying to juggle everything that was going on, I really didn’t understand all the math when they presented the Common Core.” 

Eleventh-grader Robert Nichols,18,  and ninth grader Jonathan Nichols, 15, take a break from doing their math homework in Corsica, South Dakota.

Nichols says one of the features he likes most about Photomath is how much it helps him support his sons – not by doing the math for them – but by actually re-learning and better understanding the entire process from equation to solution. “I reached my learning curve pretty early on in the pandemic.” Nichols says he upgraded to the apps’ premium version and that, “it’s definitely a life-saver, sanity-saver, grade-saver, and one of the best app purchases I’ve ever made." 

More help for kids falling behind 

There are many other apps, games, and even YouTube videos that can help you help your kids. Sal Khan, creator of the Khan Academy learning platform recently launched a free, live, peer-to-peer tutoring site called Schoolhouse.world. According to the site, the current focus is on high school math and SAT prep, with plans to expand to other areas as the site grows. 

Q&A:Khan Academy CEO Sal Khan on school and virtual learning

In a recent opinion article for the Washington Post, Dr. Susan Levine, a professor of Education and Society at the University of Chicago, and postdoctoral researcher Michelle Hurst, encourage parents to add more math exposure and exercises into the household daily routine. Some of their ideas include jigsaw puzzles, blocks, card or board games, cooking, and even setting the table. 

“Extend the conversations by asking children questions such as How should we divide the pizza so it is fair? or How did you get your answer?” the authors write. “By asking questions and giving hints, rather than immediately providing the answer, parents can help children actively engage in math thinking,” added Levine and Hurst. As for tech tools, the authors recommend Bedtime Math (for ages two and up) and the Becoming a Math Family (for ages 3-6) website and app, among a few others. 

These are all tools I wish I knew more about when my daughter was younger. My next chance at leveling-up on math help might not be until I’m a grandmother – which is still a long way off. But gone are the days of declaring, “I’m terrible at math,” and letting that be the end of it. Thanks to this evolving intersection of next-generation technology and real-life learning – there’s hope for me yet.

Jennifer Jolly is an Emmy Award-winning consumer tech columnist and host of USA TODAY's digital video show TECHNOW. Email her at jj@techish.com. Follow her on Twitter: @JenniferJolly.

The views and opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of USA TODAY.