Want to open up the future for your school-age child?

Get him to take algebra.

This is the latest word from educators, who are finding that taking highschool courses in algebra, geometry and trigonometry makes all the difference when the graduate enters the job market. In fact, a recent study by California sociologist Lucy Sells reveals that competency in these areas spells a $3,000 difference in entry-level salaries of civil service and industrial jobs, even for those without college.

Math makes the difference further on down the career line, too.

"Most mid- and executive-level management jobs -- whether it's running a Seven-Eleven or being executive vice president for General Motors -- require an ability to handle figures, work with a budget, set up a system on paper," says Sheila Tobias, aurthor of the widely-touted book, "Overcoming Math Anxiety," (W. W. Norton, 278 pages) and something of a guru in a movement to cure discomfort with math.

"The message is clear -- if you want to get ahead in your career," stresses Tobias, "you need math."

Yes, but who wants to take it?

Almost no one, studies have found. Children taking math courses are often uncomfortable with figures, and tend to see themselves as incompetent, whether they are or not. Many choose not to take math courses in their junior and senior years of high school -- a phenomenon that shows up predominantly among women, blacks and Hispanics.

"White males have someone -- a father, or an uncle -- pointing out to them the necessity of taking math. The man tells them, "So, you want to be an architest? A geologist? Open up a restuarant? Well, you're going to need math,'" says Tobias. "For girls, blacks and Hispanics, it's a different story. No one gets too excited if they quit calculus."

No one got excited when Tobias dropped math and decided to major in history. Later, she founded the Women's Studies Program at Cornell University, and through her feminist work ran across a 1972 study by Lucy Sells that got her very, very excited about math dropouts.

Sells' report sampled college freshmen of the University of California at Berkeley, and found that those entering without four years of high-school math are excluded automatically from 75-percent of the college majors.

What's left?

The traditional "women's areas" -- high-verbal studies such as English, history, social work. It's not that women do better or even prefer those areas," says Tobias. "They just take them to avoid taking math."

"Math avoidance," which also travels under the name of "math anxiety," "math panic," or "math discomfort," is a curable problem, maintains Tobias. "It's never too late to overcome your anxiety."

"But it's a lot easier to prevent than cure," says Tepper Gill, a math professor at Howard University and regional director of a four-city program called "Blacks in Math."

"Basically, it's an attitude problem, plus skills," says Gill. If you think you're a dummy, how can you feel comfortable learning arithmetic? And if you don't know arithmetic, how can you feel comfortable with algebra?" He advises that parents take the time to teach their children basis arithmetic facts and make sure they know them before enrolling in junior high school. ("Death traps," gill calls them.)

"If you've been losing at something for eight years, like many of these junior-high kids, you figure it's time to get out. And they do."

He cite the latest Carnegie Institute study showing a 36 percent dropout rate among high-school blacks. "And they aren't even counting those that never made it to high school."

It is Gill's hope that his "Blacks in Math" program will be used in the District's junior highs next year, to help develop a new attitude toward the subject.

"In the past," he says, "blacks have thought of math is a sissy subject. This is hard, because in the gheto, you take great pride in being a man. You may not have a fancy car, you may not have fancy clothes, but at least you know you're a man.

"And to have someone come in there and tell you to take some sissy course, why, that's too much. But math is a survival course, and we want to teach this. If you have your basic math skills, you can write your own ticket in almost any direction. It opens doors."

What blacks view as a "sissy course" strangely enough, women tend to think of as a "boy's subject," says Judith Jacobs, a teacher of math teachers at George Mason University. "And it's a subject women are basically afraid of."

Tobias, who groups herself with these "math-scarred," sympathizes. "We don't trust the subject; we're uptight about making mistakes; we have horrible memories of being humilated at the blackboard; we think we're dumb. But we're not dumb, really. We're different."

Confidence -- not ability -- is the major difference between the math-seekers and the math-avoiders, according to Carol Weissbrod, a psychologist who, with co-teacher Elizabeth Adams, gives a course for the math-scarred at American University. "Almost anyone can learn basic math, once they get over their fear of the subject," she says. Weissbrod singles out two major contributors to this fear.

The belief that making a mistake shows inherent inability in math.

"Mathematicians themselves find their mistakes interesting -- they learn from them, instead of running away," says Weissbrod. "If you could teach this attitude to your child -- that mistakes are interesting -- you'd help her in every subject.

The belief that problems must be solved instantly.

"Again, mathematicians will spend hours, sometime weeks on a problem, solving a little of it at a time. The math-anxious feed that if a problem's not solved right away, they won't be able to solve it. Persistences is the key, here -- don't give up!"

Jacobs adds a third element working against women in math:

A belief that women can't do math.

"Women are the butt of a lot of dumb-broad, can't-balance-the-checkbook their 'numeracy' -- the math equivalent of illiteracy -- as a badge of honor."

Tobias and a growing number of others believe that the way math is taught perpetuates math-anxiety. (An article in the current issue of Parents magazine says that the irrational fear of math is "more fundamentally rooted in the way the subject is taught" than in its mysteries.)

"Quit giving time tests -- they just make people nervous," Tobias advises math teachers. "And consider what happen when you put a difficult new concept on the blackboard, and then solve the problem in three minutes flat. What impression does that leave with your students?"

Even if your daughter is not put off by these teach techniques, she may still be stymied in math by a lack of experiences in problem-solving, Tobias says.

"Math is a little easier for boys in our culture, chiefly because of the way they play. Consider the difference between playing with a doll and building a model airplane. The doll gets a lot of verbal attention -- and, in fact, girls are shown to have slightly better verbal skills. But the model airplane requires problem-solved skills, and another key ability that shows up in boys -- the ability to visualize how the part fits into the whole.

"Boys get a lot of this kind of experience, plus a lot of activity that helps them see how objects move through spaces -- how a football moves, how their own bodies move. This gives them the advantage in geometry."

Math-anxiety experts urge that parents present a varitey of "recreational-math" experiences to both boys and girls, erector sets.

Models to build: airplanes, robots.

Puzzles.

Card and board games.

Ball-throwing and catching.

Climbing, running, jumping, "moving their own bodies through space."

Measuring, in cooking, carpentry, sewing.

Counting and computing games: "Count the Christmas lights, play with flash cards like a pack of cards, add license plates, work out miles per gallon."

Viewing math, science and technology at work in daily life and at museums, "especially the Air and Space Museum."

Families that take the time to play math games and work out math problems with their children teach an underlying principle: "that they care about math, and that they care about them," says Tobias. "If math is important to you, chances are it will be important to your children -- important enough to go on with it.

"And this is the best gift you can give your child, because it will make all the difference in his life's work."