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Finding a clear path through America's math maze

How reform adds up

Glance at the US economy, and it's easy to conclude that math skills have never been as crucial to the country's success.

Less obvious is how poorly positioned US students are to meet the challenge.

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For many decades, it hasn't seemed to matter. Americans have freely joked about math insecurities, confident that at least some people had the right stuff to save Apollo 13 or build Microsoft. But recent comparisons that show US students trailing the international competition have rattled confidence. Daily life offers ample evidence of an increasing math deficit that mocks an insatiable appetite for people who can crunch through tough problems.

Businessmen complain of computer programmers who don't grasp algorithms sufficiently. Professors have graduate students in economics who can't do enough math to serve as teaching assistants. Parents puzzle over homework that skips over calculation, while teachers confront instructional methods that change with the frequency of hair styles.

It adds up to a new math battle that turns on key questions: How can we get kids to learn this stuff? What happens in a high-tech age if we don't?

The results of the 1996 Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) placed US eighth-graders in the bottom half of 41 countries tested. They were surpassed by countries across the economic spectrum.

On top of that, many students are struggling with basic skills:

*In Massachusetts, two-thirds of fourth-graders could not multiply 256 times 98 without using a calculator on the statewide assessment test last year, according to Wilfrid Schmid, a Harvard professor of mathematics.

*In Michigan, top math students from a top school that used "new-new math" ended up in remedial courses at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

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*At Penn State University, economics Professor Thomas Fox had students in his introductory economics course for the first time last year who didn't know the difference between a numerator and a denominator.

To some educators, it's a troubling sign that bodes poorly for America's economic future. "We're already losing jobs," says Professor Fox, "the kind of jobs we really don't want to lose."

Others concur. "We're coasting right now," says Harold Stevenson, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and an expert in math education. But, "The next decades are going to be ones devoted to science and technology, and if we don't have that, where are we going to be in 20 years?"

Well behind math powerhouses, critics say. Textbooks being held up as models aren't from the US - they're from Singapore. US companies are clamoring for more visas to admit more skilled workers from Asian and European countries. Remedial math in college is routine - if kids are still interested.

Americans have long had a love-hate view of math. They are enthralled by math whizzes in movies like "Contact" and "Good Will Hunting," and enshrine dotcom successes. But they dismiss the number-savvy as geeks, and concede legwork to attain such skill lacks glamour in a society where video games trim attention spans and Barbie chirps that "math is hard."

Calls to reform math education have been around at least since the 1920s, when schools started to teach math in more broadly applicable ways. In the '50s, Sputnik spurred alarm - and more change. The pendulum has continued to swing with a fury supporting Bertrand Russell's observation that "mathematics may be defined as the subject in which we never know what we are talking about...."

The '60s hosted "new math;" the '70s swung to "basics." The late '80s and '90s hustled back toward problem-solving.

To other countries, the swings are puzzling. To US parents, they're infuriating, spurring more "wars" that pit "skills" against "problem-solving" approaches. The former scored a recent victory when the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics modified its standards back toward teaching better skills.

Ironically, some innovations under attack are standard parts of strong programs in countries like Japan. That highlights the need for teachers who deeply understand math - and teach it well.

Annie Lutes, a freshman at the University of Michigan, wishes something had been different in her math classes. A top student in "new new math" classes at Traverse City (Mich.) Central High, she had planned for years to study aerospace sciences. No longer. She'll major in archeology.

"I struggled to learn concepts I should have learned in ... high school," she says.

She thought she was well-prepared for college. But "I failed my first engineering exam. It wasn't calculus - just manipulations, and I couldn't do it."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society