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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.

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"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.

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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.