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Education Reporter

Study Gives States a D Average for Math Content
Hits Overreliance on Calculators
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States earned an average grade of a "high D" for their mathematics content standards in a study by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation published in January. While California, Indiana and Massachusetts earned As, the study concluded that "the overwhelming majority of states today have sorely inadequate math standards."

Most states' math content standards show the following problems, according to the study:

  • "excessive emphasis" on calculator use
  • failure to make students memorize basic number facts
  • absence of standard algorithms of arithmetic
  • inadequate standards for student understanding of fractions by late elementary and early middle school
  • "obsessive" focus on requiring students to identify "patterns"
  • overemphasis on estimation at the expense of exact arithmetic calculations
  • overemphasis on statistics and probability at the expense of algebra and geometry

The study recommends using true math experts to develop revised standards, rather than relying on "math educators" or "curriculum experts."

'Forth grade' math guide 
Such "curriculum experts" were likely used for the math test preparation materials recalled by New York City officials in March because the guides were riddled with math and spelling mistakes. The word "fourth" was even misspelled on the cover of the 4th-grade manual. (yahoo.com/news, 3-25-05)

Disputes over the best way to teach math continue to roil school districts and state boards across the country. Despite Massachusetts's A grade in the Fordham report, parents there have complained that there are insufficient math drills in elementary schools. The focus on "picturing" a problem, talking about it and coming up with several different approaches to solving it frustrates parents who believe that calculating the answer is given short shrift. (Boston Globe, 3-13-05)

New York State's Board of Regents recently threw in the towel on the controversial "integrated math" approach it adopted in the 1980s, deciding to reorganize the subject into the traditional three one-year courses, each with a single focus. (New York Times, 3-15-05) (See Education Reporter, Feb. 2005 and Dec. 2004 for background on math teaching controversies.)

As President Bush and the governors focus on improving the nation's high schools (see Education Reporter, Feb. 2005), math is emerging as a big hurdle. A majority of 62 high school dropouts in the federal Job Corps program surveyed by the United Negro College Fund gave "math" as the reason they quit school.

On the 2000 National Assessment of Educational Progress test in math, only 17% of high school seniors scored at the "proficient" level - less than half the percentage scoring proficient on the reading test. Moreover, 22% of college freshmen are identified as needing remedial math, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. (Education Week, 3-23-05)

Science/engineering decline 
The dropoff of Americans studying math-related subjects in college and graduate school has alarmed observers. "By 2010, 90% of all Ph.D. physical scientists and engineers in the world will be Asian living in Asia," says Nobel laureate R.E. Smalley of Rice University.

The U.S. now ranks 17th worldwide in the number of undergraduate engineers and natural scientists it produces. In 1975, it was No. 3. Many successful engineers in Silicon Valley cannot persuade their own children to enter engineering fields, in part because their children are concerned that those jobs will be outsourced overseas. (Wall Street Journal, 3-29-05)

Gates 'terrified' for U.S. workers 
Microsoft chairman Bill Gates issued a dire warning to a governors' conference in a February 26 speech: "When I compare our high schools to what I see when I'm traveling abroad, I am terrified for our work force of tomorrow. In math and science, our 4th-graders are among the top students in the world. By 8th grade, they're in the middle of the pack. By 12th grade, U.S. students are scoring near the bottom of all industrialized nations."

"The percentage of a population with a college degree is important, but so are sheer numbers," he continued. "In 2001, India graduated almost a million more students from college than the United States did. China graduates twice as many students with bachelor's degrees as the U.S., and they have six times as many graduates majoring in engineering. In the international competition to have the biggest and best supply of knowledge workers, America is falling behind." (New York Times Magazine, 3-3-05)

Indeed, even within the U.S., Asian immigrant families dominate the high levels of math and science. A 2004 study by the National Foundation for American Policy found that 65% of the top math students and 60% of the top science students in the U.S. are children of immigrants mainly from India and China. Foreign-born high school students are disproportionately represented among the high scorers on national math and science contest.

More than 50% of the engineers with Ph.D.s in the U.S. are foreign-born, as are 45% of math and computer scientists with Ph.D.s as well as life scientists and physicists, according to the National Science Foundation.

Lousy texts, unqualified teachers 
Robert J. Herbold, a retired senior executive of Microsoft and a member of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, blames unqualified teachers and weak curricula in math and science. "In 2003, the American Association for the Advancement of Science rated less than 10% of middle school math books to be acceptable, and no science books," he said in a speech at Hillsdale College (5-25-04) "The National Commission on Math and Science Teaching for the 21st Century noted that 56% of high school students taking physical science were being taught by 'out of field' teachers" in 2000.

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