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It Doesn't Add Up

January 29, 1989

Teaching children to add and subtract by rote is the wrong way to provide the mathematics education that Americans increasingly need. A panel of educators, mathematicians and scientists formed by the prestigious National Research Council warns that schools from kindergarten to college must change their basic approach to teaching math. Until they start teaching mathematics as a way of thinking and dealing with concepts, the number of students who get hooked on math will continue to decline and the country will lose the skills that its people need for a technological age.

"Wake up, America! Your children are at risk," the panel's report says on its first page. "Three of every four Americans stop studying mathematics before completing career or job prerequisites." Yet today's economy requires workers who are mentally fit--"workers who are prepared to absorb new ideas, to adapt to change, to cope with ambiguity, to perceive patterns and to solve unconventional problems"--in short, people who can think mathematically.

The panel labeled mathematics "the worst curricular villain in driving students to failure in school." Not only do students who don't understand math lose out because they can't qualify for certain careers, in many cases they drop out of school entirely.

Students aren't learning math, the report said, because mathematics teachers "teach as they were taught, not as they were taught to teach." Instead of learning mathematics through rote drills, students should be engaged in understanding the patterns and methods of thinking involved in solving problems.

It takes specialists to do that, and most math teachers aren't specialists. The report estimated that more than half the nation's 200,000 secondary school teachers and perhaps 90% of elementary school teachers do not meet professional standards for teaching mathematics. The United States should stop pretending that elementary school teachers can teach all subjects equally well and identify cadres of teachers with special interests in math and science to teach young children.

The report especially raises concern that mathematics has become a white-male preserve. Yet only 15% of the new entrants to the labor force will be white males by the end of the century. If the United States is going to have the scientists, engineers and other professionals skilled in math whom it will need, it must do better at creating interest in mathematics among women, blacks and Latinos in its classrooms.

In March the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics will issue proposed national standards to ensure that teaching methods and goals are more uniform across the country. Those proposals will foster an important debate that may help school systems and universities begin the reform process. That reform may have to start at the college level where math teachers are prepared; they in turn can promote change when they enter classrooms around the country.

Mathematical literacy is critical to Americans today. Knowing this language of science and technology not only helps people on the job; it also allows them to better understand public issues like waste management and arms control. Mathematics is one of the foundations of society, a foundation in danger of erosion unless schools change the way it is taught.

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