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Panel Urges Schools to Emphasize Core Math Skills

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By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 14, 2008

A presidential panel declared math education in the United States "broken" yesterday and called on schools to focus on ensuring that children master fundamental skills that provide the underpinnings for success in higher math and, ultimately, in high-tech jobs.

The National Mathematics Advisory Panel convened in April 2006 to address concerns that many students lack the know-how to become engineers and scientists. The 24-member panel of mathematicians, education experts and psychologists said yesterday that students need a deeper understanding of basic skills, including fluency with whole numbers and fractions. It urged more training and support for teachers and called on researchers to find ways to combat "mathematics anxiety."

Larry R. Faulkner, chairman of the panel and former president of the University of Texas at Austin, said the country needs to make changes to stay competitive in an increasingly global economy. He noted that many U.S. companies draw skilled workers from overseas, a pool that he said is drying as opportunities abroad improve.

"Math education isn't just about a school subject," Faulkner said as the panel released its final report at Fairfax County's Longfellow Middle School. "It's fundamentally about the chances that real people all across this country will have in life. And it's about the well-being and safety of the nation."

Scores from the 2006 Program for International Student Assessment showed 15-year-olds in the United States trailed peers from 23 industrialized countries in math.

The panel stressed that many students are simply befuddled by fractions. And one panel member noted that a recent survey of middle school students found that 84 percent would rather clean their room or take out the garbage than tackle math homework.

President Bush charged the panel with examining ways to ensure that students have a strong grasp of the building blocks needed for algebra, a gateway to higher math. Students who complete Algebra II are more likely to attend and graduate from college.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said the report's release was a "seminal moment" in math education and urged teachers, school boards, colleges, interest groups and parents to use it as a guidepost to refine instruction.

"I want every stakeholder in the equation of education to look at all of this and act on it," Spellings said. "I think there are very actionable steps right now. Teachers, starting today, can pay more attention to fractions."

The panel concluded that the math curricula and textbooks in elementary and middle schools typically cover too many topics without enough depth. It noted that countries in which children do best at math, including Singapore and Japan, emphasize core topics.

The panel identified benchmark skills that students need for a strong math foundation -- for example, that students be able to add and subtract whole numbers by the end of third grade. By the time students leave fifth grade, the panel said, they should be able to add and subtract fractions and decimals.

"I think the main message of this report is simple -- content is king," said Tom Loveless, panel member and director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution.


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