You do the math

December 16, 2004

THE LATEST news about how well American students match up with their international peers is decidedly mixed. According to one study released this week, American eighth-graders are doing better in math than they did nine years ago. But fourth-graders have stagnated in math and regressed a little in science. During the same period, students in other countries improved even more, causing the United States to slip in the overall rankings. Another survey released last week showed that 15-year-olds in the United States are not as good at solving real-life math problems as their counterparts in other industrialized countries, including Finland, South Korea, Japan and Canada.

How alarmed should we be that American students are still coming up short in these international comparisons? After all, who needs higher math outside of a classroom? And can't we simply either import workers to do the kinds of jobs that require higher-order math skills or outsource jobs to workers in some of the high-performing countries?

Maybe all the math skills you or your kid will need to make it in life can be handled with a calculator. But many academic experts point out that math imposes a kind of logical thinking that helps with other subjects and is needed for many technological and other high-skill jobs. As for the job market, some labor experts suggest that the demand for really high-skilled workers from abroad may outstrip supply, particularly when other countries are increasingly vying for the same workers. So, how do we grow more of our own?

Some say we need a national curriculum, similar to countries such as Japan and Singapore, and that we need more qualified math teachers. Math and reading tests required by the federal No Child Left Behind law are already pushing us toward national standards. States still enjoy some flexibility in how they get all students to meet those standards. According to The Wall Street Journal, some schools in Massachusetts have even adopted the math curriculum used in Singapore, with some success.

In particular, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, released this week, shows that many schools are helping all students score gains. One of the bright spots in the study was that since 1995, the math achievement gap between white students and black students in the United States decreased by 20 points, while the gap between white and Hispanic students dropped 13 points.

But for that progress to continue and expand, there's a critical piece missing from the equation: There simply are not enough qualified math teachers to go around. As we come closer and closer to NCLB's requirement of a highly qualified teacher in every classroom by 2006, training more math teachers and luring more skilled mathematicians into schools becomes an imperative.

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