I would bet that anyone who teaches math has had this experience: you’re in a social situation where someone asks what you do. Tell them you teach math and the reply comes back "Oh, I was never good at math" or something similar. So what is it that make someone understand and like math enough to teach it and others who struggle with the subject and detest it? A variety of theories have been offered over the centuries – genetics, gender, teaching methods – but the bottom line is that no one really knows.

Three little words — "math is hard" — uttered a decade ago by Teen Talk Barbie drew enough protests of sexism that its maker, Mattel Inc., pulled the doll from stores. But researchers today say Barbie wasn’t all wrong: Math is hard for many — male and female, children and adults. And while a "math gene" has not been discovered, experts say that early school-age boys and girls tend to approach the subject differently, influenced by biological, environmental and educational factors. So why, despite this year’s fanfare over SAT scores reaching a 30-year high, does math still stump so many?

That last question is easy. The SAT and other standardized tests largely ask for knowledge of the mechanical processes rather than an understanding of the concepts of mathematics. Those concepts don’t come easily to many students and unfortunately are often poorly taught, usually sacrificed to more rote instruction. As a result students have little understanding of why they are working through the algorithms or the context of the results at the other end.

Some say that learning math is similar to tackling a foreign language; others say it is different from all other subjects, because math is abstract and requires more logical and ordered thinking. There are battles over how to teach it, dissension over gender issues, questions about the causes of poor student performance, and no universal definition for "math learning disability," known as discalculia. What is known is that math is hierarchical, so that "if you hit a hurdle somewhere along the way, it’s tough to catch up," said Julie Sanders, a math teacher at Episcopal High School, a private school in Alexandria.

In the end, however, good teaching can overcome a lot of other perceived obstacles. I offer as evidence an absolutely marvelous book from which any intelligent person can learn the concepts of Calculus. It’s called Professor E. McSquared’s Calculus Primer. Check it out.

When I was in college, the professors steered me toward a math major because, they said, so many prospective teachers were themselves uncomfortable with math that the schools were in desperate need– this was in 1980– of qualified instructors.

You still hear plenty about a shortage of good math teachers, which means there are plenty of classrooms and students making do with folks who don’t have the necessary comfort level and knowledge to impart what’s needed. Maybe it’s become a self-perpetuating cycle: Teachers who don’t like math teach kids who are afraid of math, who grow up uncomfortable with math and can’t teach it themselves….