Our broken math curriculum

Nothing like an advisory panel report to brighten up the weekend.

A presidential panel Thursday said America’s math education system is “broken” and called on schools to focus lessons to ensure children from preschool to middle school master key skills.

The National Mathematics Advisory Panel was convened by President Bush in April 2006 to address concerns that many of today’s students lack the math know-how needed to become future engineers and scientists.

The 24-member panel of mathematicians and education experts announced recommendations to improve instruction and make better textbooks and even called on researchers to find ways to combat “mathematics anxiety.”

Larry Faulkner, panel chairman 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 he said is drying out as opportunities in other countries improve.

“The question is, are we going to be able to get the talent?” Faulkner said in a briefing before the report’s release.

“And it’s not just a question of economic competitiveness,” he said. “In the end, it’s a question of whether, as a nation, we have enough technical prowess to assure our own security.”

The panel, which released its final report Thursday, examined ways to make sure students have a strong grasp of the building blocks they need to understand algebra, a gateway to higher math.

Students who complete algebra are more likely to attend college and graduate.

The panel found that the math curricula in elementary and middle schools cover too many topics without enough depth. It set out skills students need to know to have a strong foundation in math.

As someone who was born with a gift for numbers, it’s hard for me to objectively judge this. My parents transferred me from the parochial school that the family had attended for generations to a new public intermediate school when I was in the sixth grade because I was so bored to tears with arithmetic, and the new school gave me a chance to learn algebra. That was certainly beneficial to me, and I see no reason why all kids can’t be exposed to that by the time they enter high school. But again, I wasn’t an average kid in that regard, so I don’t want to extrapolate from my own experience.

You can read the panel’s report and its ancillary documents here. I also found the Math Panel Watch blog, which has some interesting critiques of the panel’s approach and conclusions. Check them out.

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One Response to Our broken math curriculum

  1. blank says:

    I’ve always thought that the problem is that they teach arithmetic first and call it math. Arithmetic really isn’t interesting, and it requires lots of memorization, which is far less necessary than people realize (especially with computers and calculators). I’ve always thought that they should use blocks or other toys and teach set theory and geometry early. Call that math. Then, you might get a few more kids interested.

    I say this as an engineering professor with a BS in math, so like Kuff I may not be the best person to indentify with people who struggle with it.

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