Focus on algebra, U.S. panel tells schools
To catch up with other nations in math, schools should teach fewer topics in more depth, it says.
American students have fallen below top-performing nations in math because their courses skim the surface of too many topics, critics say.Skip to next paragraph
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Now a prominent national panel is calling for schools to focus on key topics that promote success in algebra, a gatekeeper for higher-level math and science. Its closely watched report, released Thursday (see www.ed.gov/mathpanel), is part of a growing chorus of voices calling for reform in US math education.
"There's starting to be a critical mass behind doing something," says Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, Calif., and a board member of the nonprofit Math for America, which recruits and trains math teachers. "I'm optimistic that ... the various groups within states ... will look at this [report] and will change their curriculum objectives."
The changes offered by the National Mathematics Advisory Panel are significant.
Key pre-algebra skills would get more focused attention, experts say. The report's emphasis on algebra stems partly from research showing a correlation between doing well in the subject and going on to gain a college degree and earn a good income. Growth in math- and science-related jobs is outpacing growth in other fields 3 to 1.
Math textbooks, which can top 700 pages even in elementary school, would be likely to slim down, experts say. Currently, some states tackle more than 100 math objectives in a given grade.
Teacher training would need to be ramped up. The panel calls for more efforts to train and evaluate teachers and to retain the most effective ones. It recommends research on the use of full-time math teachers in elementary schools.
Beyond curriculum concerns, the panel points out that educators and the public at large need to recognize that "effort, not just inherent talent, counts in mathematical achievement." That calls for a cultural shift: For more kids to learn math, adults need to stop joking that it's too hard for all but the brainiest, experts say.
The panel does not come down on one side or the other of the popularly dubbed "math wars" – debates about traditional memorization of basic math facts versus child-centered discovery of concepts. It takes the middle ground, saying research supports "the mutually reinforcing benefits of conceptual understanding, procedural fluency, and automatic (i.e., quick and effortless) recall of facts."
"The truth is you have to do both," Ms. Klawe says. Most of the math community agrees "these are not things that should be in competition with each other."
Some states with struggling economies see revamped math education as key to their recovery. Ohio recently announced the launch of its Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Learning Network. It aims to prepare 100,000 students over the next 10 years to work in high-quality jobs. Its first five regional schools will include many low-income and minority students, groups that lag behind nationally on math assessments.