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.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Math problem: Students at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute can take college-prep math classes. But generally, the US lags other developed nations in math education.
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American students have fallen below top-performing nations in math because their courses skim the surface of too many topics, critics say.

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."

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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.

"The public doesn't really grasp that we aren't very competitive with the most aggressive societies in the world," says Larry Faulkner, chair of the national panel. The US used to have the highest educational standards for universal education but now "the whole world has grown up around us," he says.

Fifteen-year-olds in the US ranked 25th among 30 developed nations in math literacy and problem-solving, the 2006 Program for International Student Assessment found.

A key lesson drawn from countries that outperform the US on math tests is the need for a focused, logical progression from topic to topic.

The most successful nations concentrate on a few key topics in the early grades and build on those to teach algebra, says William Schmidt, a professor at Michigan State University, who has studied math curricula in dozens of countries. By contrast, most states in the US "seem to operate by the philosophy that you cover everything everywhere, because then somehow somebody will learn something somewhere," he said in a recent conference call with reporters.

In 2006, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) outlined curriculum focal points for prekindergarten to the eighth grade. That document received wide attention. The national panel, a diverse group that examined thousands of research studies and held public hearings around the country, builds on the dialogue sparked by the NCTM and makes some similar recommendations.

NCTM Executive Director James Rubillo says he hopes "states and districts come a little bit closer together [in their math standards]. One of the great concerns I have is student mobility: Students move ... and encounter an entirely different order of topics."

Florida offers a glimpse of what it takes to steer in this new direction. The Sunshine State just happened to be revising 10-year-old math standards when NCTM's focal-points report came out and it took the recommendations to heart. Officials also looked at high-performing states and foreign countries, including Massachusetts, Singapore, and Finland.

Florida's standards "weren't clear and concise enough to guide instruction," says Mary Jane Tappen, head of the state Office of Math and Science. For example, K-8 teachers used to have to cover some 83 math expectations a year. Now they can focus on an average 18.5 benchmarks. "That requires an incredible change in instruction ... so that each of these concepts can be taught in greater depth," she says.

Students' lack of understanding of fractions is particularly vexing to math teachers nationwide. In Florida, that's one subject that middle school teachers are being trained to teach better. Principals and teachers at all grade levels in the state will undergo training in coming months; new courses will be in place this fall. New assessments will take several years to finalize.

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