Problem solved

November 27, 2006

School surveys show that more American students are taking math courses such as algebra and calculus - but what are they learning? A kind of phony debate has sprung up about whether they need more basics, such as multiplication and long division, or more so-called creative applications such as problem solving. The sensible answer, according to the nation's math teachers, is both. If more students understand the basics, they can apply that knowledge to solving complex problems. And they can also help keep America globally competitive.

The importance of understanding basic math shouldn't be in question. But some parents and school districts think there was too much emphasis on so-called reform math after a 1989 report by the influential National Council of Teachers of Mathematics seemed to encourage students to tackle math problems - and deal with their intimidation by the subject - through pictures, writing or other methods. But two more recent NCTM reports, in 2000 and earlier this fall, try to give more clarity to important principles and standards related to math instruction, particularly as more and more goals, assessments and other layers of accountability have been added by federal and state education officials.

NCTM's most recent report in September rightly re-emphasizes "coherence" in math curriculums, outlining essential concepts and skills that students should be able to master from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. The idea is to encourage states to refocus attention on fundamental and common lessons and skills, from whole numbers to linear equations, that highly mobile students will understand wherever they attend school.

Maryland State Department of Education officials think the state's math curriculum already strikes a good balance. But they are wisely conducting a periodic re-examination with school district math coordinators that should be completed by the end of the year. Since American students generally continue to lag behind their foreign peers on international math tests, rigorous state curriculum reviews are certainly appropriate. If America is going to produce enough scientists, engineers and math teachers, then improving math proficiency at all grade levels, focusing on the basics and problem solving, is key.

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