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Panel Urges Schools to Emphasize Core Math Skills

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.

It's not just lessons that need to change, the panel said, but also the nation's attitudes about math. In a culture in which parents say they "weren't good at math either," children assume they don't have the talent for numbers. The panel said that research shows that practice pays off and that adults need to give students that message.

The panel also weighed in on the long-running battle between traditionalists, who favor a focus on memorization and drilling, and those who prefer stressing concepts and letting students make connections on their own. Students need to know math facts and have automatic recall, Faulkner said, but they also need "some element of discovery."

"I think this panel has gradually evolved to the view that most members believe that most effective teachers draw from both philosophies at different times," he said.

The panel met a dozen times, heard testimony from groups and individuals and reviewed thousands of research papers. The panel said that it is "self-evident" that teachers need to have strong math skills but that more research must be done to find the best ways to prepare them.

Local educators, business leaders and interest groups were delving into the report yesterday afternoon. School officials in Montgomery and Fairfax counties said the recommendations mirror efforts underway to help more children successfully complete an algebra course by the end of eighth grade.

Roy Romer, former governor of Colorado and chairman of Strong American Schools, said the report illustrates a need for states to voluntarily agree on standards that are "uniform for all of America and benchmarked against the rest of the world." The nonpartisan group seeks to make education a priority in the 2008 presidential election.

"We include too much, we're much too broad and we don't go deep enough," said Romer, who also served as Los Angeles school superintendent. "We put out these textbooks with 750 pages, and if you're a fourth-grade teacher, you can't teach 750 pages. You have to be selective."

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