Watch Pregnant Trapezium Math's startup story. (Video credit: Sue Williams)

I’ve just met Angela McIver, a mathematician in Philadelphia, over the phone, and she doesn’t know where I live. But when I casually mention that my twins are only in Pre-K, so I don’t yet know the quality of math courses at their elementary school, she immediately assures me that it’s subpar. Like any parent, I’m taken aback. “It’s not your children’s school,” she explains. “It’s just the curriculum for elementary schools in the U.S. is really bad.”

She’s not wrong — in fact, the jarring statistics would suggest she’s spot on. In the U.S., just 40% of fourth-graders are “proficient” or “advanced” in math, with that number dropping to 25% by the time students are in the 12th grade, according to the 2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress. And it’s even more depressing to compare U.S. students, raised in one of the wealthiest countries on earth, to their international peers: American 15-year-olds rank 40th out 70 countries when it comes to math literacy, according to the Programme for International Student Assessment.

Much of this, according to McIver, the founder of an after-school program called Trapezium Math Club, has to do with the inadequate way children are taught fundamental math concepts. “You have kids everyday leaving elementary school and they can’t tell you what seven plus four is,” she says. “That’s the equivalent of leaving elementary school without knowing your sight words” — that is, commonly used words that young children are encouraged to memorize, like “the” or “and.”

Inspired By Struggle

McIver studied children’s math understanding — or lack thereof — for her Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania. Much to her frustration, a few years later, she witnessed her own daughter struggle with math, at one of Philadelphia’s best elementary schools. “I sat my daughter down, and interviewed her in the same way that I interviewed my students for my dissertation,” she says. “I was stunned at how little math she knew and understood by the end of second grade. She was like a deer in headlights.”

McIver, already a math consultant, began an “acrimonious relationship” with her daughter’s school. “I contacted the school and said, ‘I think there’s a problem with the math curriculum,’” she recalls. The school didn’t budge. “And so I said, ‘Fine. I’m going to start a program for my daughter.’”

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That after-school math program, which McIver initially called Monster Math Club, is now in its 10th year and currently enrolls about 120 students. With its emphasis on fun games to teach math concepts, it has quickly grown in popularity — in 2014, McIver moved it from her home to a commercial space. While she started with the “entirely selfish” goal of making sure her own children “would not get to middle school and sit in a class and not know what was happening,” McIver discovered that other parents desired the same thing.

Her goal has always been to build confidence in kids, but the results have been even higher than anticipated. Here’s one metric of success: The majority of her students are children of Penn faculty who attend the university-affiliated Penn Alexander elementary school. And in 2018, the only Penn Alexander students accepted into advanced math at the city’s top magnet high school were Trapezium Math graduates.

Looking to Expand

McIver is eager to expand her business model, so she can reach even more students. Progress has come in fits and starts. Last year, she started Dinner Table Math — essentially, educational materials that parents can use at home —  aspiring it to be like the “Hooked On Phonics” educational series, except for math instead of reading. Parents, it turned out, hated the name. “I didn’t realize that it would evoke so much emotion from parents like, ‘We don’t have time for dinner … and now I have to do math at dinner?’” she says. Some parents are even traumatized by their own school experience with math. “We found a study that said that parents would rather talk to their children about sex and drugs than help them with their math homework.”

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Undeterred, McIver is relaunching the take-home materials as Trapezium Math for Home, and she’s also developed a curriculum for teachers called Trapezium Math for Schools. Together with the after-school program, which brings in the most revenue, McIver has a $370,000 business.  She still does math consulting work to bring in additional income.

Harder than building a business, though, is challenging all those commonly held myths about math. McIver, who was appointed to the Philadelphia Board of Education in 2018, bristles when people say someone is born a “math person” or “left-brained” instead of “right-brained.”

“You’re not born with math talent,” McIver says. “You have to work at it.” Generally speaking, a young child who demonstrates math knowledge at school typically has parents who helped teach basic math skills at home. Many parents read to their children; far fewer engage in math exercises — possibly because parents mistakenly believe they need to be math experts themselves (they do not, she says, especially with basic things like brain-teasers that can help kids.) “More than reading, parents need to be doing math at home with their kids at home,” she says. “I believe that to my core.”

Read Full Transcript

Angela: You have kids every day leaving elementary school and they can't tell you what 7+4 is without counting on their fingers. And we don't see that as a failure. That is a monumental failure.

TEXT: Angela McIver – Founder + CEO – Trapezium Math – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Angela: Many parents have been traumatized by math themselves. We found a study that said that parents would rather talk to their children about sex and drugs than help them with their math homework. There's this anxiety around, “I'm supposed to know math, and I didn't understand it myself, and I can't work with my children.”

Angela SOT: Wait, how many of you are able to know your multiples up to 105?

Angela: We want kids to develop number fluency, this kind of mental map for doing numbers and having this really strong foundation for being able to do math quickly and easily in your head.

TEXT: Angela grew up without even realizing she loved math.

Angela: I remember I was probably eight, recognizing that if every telephone number had seven digits, how many telephone numbers could there be? And I just started trying to come up with a system for figuring out how many telephone numbers there could be. The math that I was doing was not connected to the math I was doing in school. So I didn’t recognize it as math.

TEXT: Angela went to Hampton University, a historically black college in Virginia.

Angela: I was a history major, and in my sophomore year I took an economics course and I loved it. And it was because it was so mathematical and it made so much sense.

TEXT: After graduating in 1989, Angela moved to Philadelphia.

TEXT: She earned her Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania studying how children learn math.

Angela SOT: We got the year code, and everyone thinks that’s the day of the week. Why is this not the day of the week?

Angela: Every math problem you see represents a real world problem outside. So you might see a problem, 3x5, and you can turn that into a real world math problem. “I have five friends and they all got three cookies and how many cookies did you get?”

TEXT: In 2000 Angela married Bill Jenkins, a software engineer. They have three children.

Angela: When my daughter started elementary school, I was stunned at how little math she knew and understood by the end of second grade. She was like a deer in headlights.

TEXT: Angela decided to start a weekly math club for her daughter.

Angela: I started this very long spreadsheet of discrete skills that students should know by the time they leave fifth grade. It can be as simple as counting money, telling time on an analog clock, measuring, you know, how many quarts are in a gallon.

TEXT: When Angela’s son and her younger daughter started school, she started math clubs for them.

Angela: We ended up having every grade level, from kindergarten to fifth grade, in our house after school. We got to the point where we had a waiting list that was like a year and a half long. That's when I realized that this actually is a business.

TEXT: Angela rented a commercial space for the math club, and a summer camp. In 2014 Angela set up Trapezium Math.

Angela: One of the challenges for Trapezium Math for Schools is that we are a very different model for how you teach math. And in our space, we don't have tables and chairs, kids get to move around, they get to decide what their math level is.

TEXT: Trapezium is now used in three area schools.

Angela: We are far more successful with independent schools because they have the flexibility of thinking differently about how you teach children.

TEXT: At the Christina Seix Academy in Trenton, elementary teachers use Trapezium’s curriculum exclusively.

Angela: Our first group of students are now in sixth grade and have been there since kindergarten. We do standardized testing for them regularly and have found that our students are testing two and three grade levels above grade level.

TEXT: Trapezium’s annual revenue is $350,000. In 2019 Angela launched Trapezium Math at Home to help parents work with their kids at home.

Angela: How do we create something that builds confidence in children around math and helps them to do math, really hard math, at really young ages? That’s the thing that’s very exciting.

SOT: Christian.
-Very good! Good job, guys! Thank you! Okay, who do I have for calendar math?