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September 1st, 2011

12:55 PM ET

Dave Schechter

Senior National Editor

The 7th-grader was struggling with a homework project, creating a PowerPoint presentation on the origins of mathematics. One requirement was to note similarities between Babylonian and Chinese math. I helped him research this question, all the while assuming that his teachers had good reason for its inclusion.

But it did make me think about what math skills are being taught and remember my own less-than-stellar math grades.

Math may have been my least favorite subject. I concurred with a yearbook entry that mocked a slogan on our high school’s walls: “Two years of mathematics is not a service to mankind.”

I suffer from “math anxiety,” a malady that affects not only students, but also some teachers and clearly parents who squirm when their children ask for help with math homework. “People are very happy to say they don’t like math,” said Sian L. Beilock, a University of Chicago psychology professor and the author of “Choke,” a 2010 book on brain responses to performance pressure. “No one walks around bragging that they can’t read, but it’s perfectly socially acceptable to say you don’t like math.”

Even with my math deficiency, I recognize the truth of the following statement, drawn from a report on how American students compare with their counterparts in other nations: “Maintaining our innovative edge in the world depends importantly on developing a highly qualified cadre of scientists and engineers. To realize that objective requires a system of schooling that produces students with advanced math and science skills.”

Based on the proficiency of the high school graduating class of 2011, the United States ranked 32nd out of 65 industrialized countries. “Performance levels among the countries ranked 23rd to 31st are not significantly different from that of the U.S. in a statistical sense, yet 22 countries do significantly outperform the United States in the share of students reaching the proficiency level in math. Six countries plus Shanghai and Hong Kong had majorities of students performing at least at the proficiency level, while the United States had less than one-third.”

Of the individual states, only Massachusetts had more than half (51 percent) of its students score at or above the proficient mark. Minnesota was second (43 percent), followed by Vermont, North Dakota, New Jersey and Kansas. [Note: Massachusetts also topped the states in reading proficiency.]

How to improve this situation? There are debates over how much math students need to know, what parts of the subject should be given more emphasis and how fast students should be allowed to progress. There are some who say the current teaching methods are inadequate to the task.

In some states, including the one in which my children attended public schools, test results prompted discussion of whether students are being taught more forms of math than reasonable and more in later grades than they will need for their futures, aside from those who will go on to study math or other fields in which advanced knowledge is critical. Is a class that includes algebra, geometry and statistics of greater value than one that focuses solely on algebra?

An interesting perspective from John W. Myres, a former teacher and superintendent in California schools: “No doubt, algebra is a steppingstone to higher mathematics and quite necessary in professions that require extensive knowledge of math. Too, it offers insights not only into numbers, but also into general problem-solving separately. It is also reasonable for most students to have some experience with it before they leave school. The difficulty, however, is assuming that algebra, in itself, will greatly increase everyone's ability to do the kind of mathematics that most people do in ordinary life. Most people add, subtract, multiply, and divide, using whole numbers, fractions, decimals, and percentages. They purchase food and clothing, balance checkbooks, create budgets, verify credit card charges, measure the size of rooms, fulfill recipe requirements, and even understand baseball batting averages or horse-racing odds. These activities don't require a real knowledge of algebra,” Myres wrote in Education Week.

The debate over how much math to teach how fast took root earlier this year in Montgomery County, Maryland, when the state’s largest (and a well-regarded) public school system stopped advancing elementary and middle school students past their grade level in math. “Parents had questioned the payoff of acceleration; teachers had said students in even the most advanced classes were missing some basics.”

And if learning math is hard, teaching it can be difficult, as well. Interestingly, research shows that majoring in math in college may not of itself make a graduate qualified to teach. Math teachers need to “know the subject matter well and how to teach it,” said Deborah Loewenberg Ball, dean of the University of Michigan school of education, who has studied math education extensively. “The problem is that the math major is not a good proxy for that.” A report released last year by The National Mathematics Advisory Panel, on which Ball served, found no evidence of a link between teachers’ degree attainment in college and student academic gains in elementary and middle grades and a slightly stronger connection between math majors and students’ high school performance.

But there may be a link between math knowledge and future well-being. “. . . math appears to be the subject in which accomplishment in secondary school is particularly significant for both an individual’s and a country’s economic well-being. Existing research, though not conclusive, indicates that math skills better predict future earnings and other economic outcomes than other skills learned in high school,” reports a study titled “U.S. Math Performance in Global Perspective,” prepared by Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance and Education Next.

The EducationNext/Harvard study calculated that improving the math proficiency of American students could, over time, increase the U.S. Gross Domestic Product by 2 percent to 3 percent annually and, an 80-year period, be worth $75 trillion to the nation’s economy. “Even if you tweak these numbers a bit in one direction or another to account for various uncertainties, you reach the same bottom line: Those who say that student math performance does not matter are clearly wrong,” the report affirms.

And if math comprehension is that indicator of future well-being then it also may be worth noting a divide along racial lines. “While 42 percent of white students were identified as proficient in math, only 11 percent of African American students, 15 percent of Hispanic students, and 16 percent of Native Americans were so identified. Fifty percent of students with an ethnic background from Asia and the Pacific Islands, however, were proficient in math.”

A history of African-American students performing below their white counterparts has spurred discussion of math education as a civil right.

Earlier this year the government released data from more than 7,000 districts, representing at least three-quarters of American students. In 3,000 high schools, math classes went no higher than Algebra I, and in 7,300 schools, students had no access to calculus. Schools serving mostly African-American students were twice as likely to have inexperienced teachers as schools serving mostly whites in the same district. “These data paint a portrait of a sad truth in America’s schools, that the promise of fundamental fairness hasn’t reached whole groups of students that will need the opportunity to succeed, to get out of poverty, to ensure their dreams come true, and indeed to ensure our country’s prosperity,” Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary for civil rights in the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, told the Christian Science Monitor.

Robert Moses was years ahead in recognizing this issue. A veteran of the 1960s civil rights movement (as field secretary for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), Moses’ experience teaching in an inner city school convinced him that mathematics literacy is as important for inner city and rural poor students as the right to vote was to sharecroppers and laborers in Mississippi in the 1960s. “Math illiteracy is not unique to Blacks the way the denial of the right to vote in Mississippi was. But it affects blacks and other minorities much, much more intensely, making them the designated serfs of the information age just as the people that we worked with in the 1960s on the plantations were Mississippi’s serfs then,” Moses wrote in “Radical Equations: Civil Rights from Mississippi to the Algebra Project.” In the mid-1980s, Moses used the proceeds from a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant to develop the Algebra Project, aimed at addressing the racial disparity.

As for my son’s PowerPoint project, should he eventually go into a field requiring an intimate knowledge of mathematics, knowledge of similarities between ancient Babylonia and China indeed may be valuable. As for me, since my years in school I’ve kept my use of math fairly basic, pleased to have avoided story problems or “unknown” numbers.

Not even as a service to mankind.

Jonathan"Earlier this year the government released data from more than 7,000 districts, representing at least three-quarters of American students."

Where can I find this data?

Bruce Deitrick PriceThe weird complexity of New Math and Reform Math should tell everyone that the Education Establishment must be incompetent or actually subversive. Math scores, and math skills, have been plunging for decades.

I'm afraid the same DNA will continue into Common Core Standards.

Personally, I'm convinced that this decline is intentional. Why am I sure? Because so many millions of foreign students, private school students and as well American homeschoolers learn math successfully. That's because it's properly taught.

Bruce Deitrick Price

Improve-Education.org

mikeA project on the differences between Babylonian and Chinese math. In 7th grade. And you wonder why kids would utterly give up. The educational system is made up of elitist snobs bent on making every child an Einsteinian mathematician. Practical math, business math, consumer math, has no place in their world. The math I had in high school in the 1970's was about right. Challenging enough to stretch you in algebra and geometry, but not so much as to defeat you. The point is to have a well-rounded education, followed by the freedom to do with it as you want. This focus on "math excellence' doesn't lead to it, but does lead to reducing the quality of other aspects of education: writing, American history, English literature, etc.

JeffI have to say here that math is crucial. We need more of it in our educational system. It teaches things beyond multiplication and division. As a philosophy major in college i studied symbolic logic that was a wonderful combination of Logic from math and arguments from Philosophy. While certainly not your everyday math or Philosophy class it really showed me how closely the liberal arts are linked to math. I have had history class taught exclusively from an economics prospective. I learned more about why the civil war was fought than was ever covered in a traditional history class. This study highlights a crucial issue. We need better teachers, ones who can tie math to art, combine history and math. We need teachers who did not graduate in the bottom third of their college class.