BOSTON — `WAKE up America! Your children are at risk,'' the National Academy of Sciences warns. It explains that, ``mathematics is the key to opportunity'' - and poor math education is denying most Americans that key. The academy's report was released yesterday. Its authors say that a decline in math skills is beginning to pose a serious threat to national well-being. If this is not corrected during the 1990s, they conclude that the United States will be unable to cope effectively with the world of the 21st century.
The report's authors aren't talking about the third member of education's traditional three ``Rs'' - reading, 'riting, and 'rithmetic. Rather, they are talking about a grasp of mathematical concepts that transcend mere computation and the ability to use them effectively in daily life. These include such concepts as probability, rates of growth (as in population explosions), or the quantitative aspects of public policy (as in weighing the risks of a nuclear power plant).
The report notes that ``one must be able to grasp the implications of many mathematical concepts - for example, chance, logic, and graphs - that permeate daily news and routine decisions.'' It adds that ``there is some evidence that the decline in reading comprehension scores over the last several decades is due in part to the growing mathematical content of what one is required to read.''
The authors say, ``It is these needs, not just the need for calculation [which is now done mostly by machines], that make mathematics a prerequisite to so many jobs.''
Because social minorities tend to suffer most from poor math education, the report is concerned about a new type of segregation. ``We are at risk,'' it warns, ``of becoming a nation divided both economically and racially by knowledge of mathematics.''
A recent study of the US Department of Education reinforces this point. Researchers Clifford Adelman and Nabeel Alsalam found that students who took more high school and college math earned considerably higher incomes in their first decade of work than did their less mathematically inclined peers. ``More math means more money,'' they concluded.
The academy report blames America's math lag largely on a national contempt for mathematics. ``Only in America,'' it notes, ``do adults openly proclaim their ignorance of mathematics (`I never was very good at math') as if it were some sort of merit badge.''
Thus, the report says, a general tolerance for underachievement has become the norm in mathematics education. The result is a general level of math skills in the United States that is much inferior to that of Europe or Japan.
The report seeks to stimulate a national debate on improving math education. This would include local elementary and high school education as well as university curriculums.
It urges reaching national consensus on a core mathematical education which all children and young adults should have. This consensus could arise out of the cooperative efforts of mathematics educators through their professional societies - efforts already under way.