The Why Files The Why Files --

Mathematical miasma


Let Singapore = 594 and United States = 518 Let United States = 518 and Moldova = 504
These innocent-looking results of a global math test have a lot of Americans worked up. Many citizens of a society built on science and technology were jarred to see that American 4th graders were closer to the Republic of Moldova Table reports US fourth graders score above average on a math examthan globe-leading Singapore on the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study. That's an international test given every four years to show how poorly American students do in math how well students in various countries are learning math.

In 2003, U.S. 8th graders scored above average, but below the leaders, in math. Graph: TIMSS.

Math is not just about the beauty of abstract reasoning; it's also the basis for science and engineering. Strong math skills are supporting India's booming software industry and China's mushrooming factories. In 2003, Chinese factories made 12 percent of world high-technology production, according to the National Science Foundation.

Yet here at home, science and math skills are faltering, and higher ed is feeling the impact. In 2003, one-third of American science and engineering students -- fields where math really matters -- were foreign born.

True, U.S. TIMSS math scores edged up from 1995 to 2003, and U.S. students rank higher in science. But don't get too excited: the NSF tells us that no more than one-third of American mathematics and science students are "proficient," performing at "a level denoting solid performance for their grade based on judgments of what students should know and be able to do in the subject assessed."

Which should come first, skill or understanding?
American students benefit from a huge educational infrastructure and many of our teachers have years of graduate education. Table shows that US fourth graders score below Asia and Europe on an international math testWhy can't they do better at math? That question has blipped the Congressional radar screen, as evidenced by the National Innovation Act, a bi-partisan bill that "focuses on three primary areas of importance to maintaining and improving United States' innovation in the 21st Century: research investment, increasing science and technology talent and developing an innovation infrastructure." And President Bush has proposed a one-year, $380-million boost for science and math education.

In 2003, 4th graders in Asia and Europe scored above U.S. students on an international study of math and science skills. Graph: TIMSS.

The argument over the best way to teach math is often simplified into a debate between a traditional, drill-and-skill approach, with a focus on solving problems by applying rules and methods, versus a preference for starting with math's logic, structure, rules and definitions, and then focusing on word problems and real-world applications, with less emphasis on computational skills. The dispute between" traditional" and "reform" math flared in California during the 1990s, after a new math curriculum aroused the fury of some parents and math professors, who argued that students were not learning the math they would need in the real world.

California changed its curriculum, the battle cries were muffled, and TIMSS scores inched up. But critics still charge that the immense American spending on education should produce more results.

As we approach May, Math Awareness Month, let's look at the Math Wars, edition 2006.


Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

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