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A solution to how to teach math: Subtract

USA Today logoWASHINGTON — Wondering why your child isn't learning enough math in school? Her textbook may be too thick.

In an unprecedented effort, a blue-ribbon panel commissioned by President Bush has been working since 2006 to find out why the math skills of U.S. students pale next to those in so many other industrialized nations. The 20 respected scholars scoured more than 16,000 research studies, heard testimony in eight cities and argued among themselves — sometimes heatedly — for nearly two years.

CHART: What kids need to know -- and when

In the end, they found a math instruction system that's "broken and must be fixed" if the USA is to compete with established economic powers or emerging ones such as China.

In its long-awaited report, out today, the National Math Panel zeroes in on several factors:

•Children badly need both automatic recall of math facts and understanding of big concepts, in effect declawing both sides in the decades-long "math wars."

•Based on brain research, Americans should look at prowess in math less as a talent than as the result of sheer hard work.

•Schools must streamline their math courses, focusing on "a well-defined set of the most critical topics" from early elementary school through middle school. "Any approach that continually revisits topics year after year without closure is to be avoided," the report says.

If widely adopted by states, the new approach could force U.S. textbook publishers to slim down their wares, forcing massive textbooks — some run 700 or even 1,000 pages — into extinction.

In their place would be books as slim as 150 pages to help children solidly learn just a few key skills each year.

"There is a problem of kids not feeling like they're getting anywhere, that third-grade math is the same as fourth-grade math," says panel chairman Larry Faulkner, president emeritus of the University of Texas at Austin.

Math books are much smaller in many countries with higher mathematics achievement, the panel says.

"In the U.S., we're trying to teach first-graders 20-some topics," says Michigan State University professor William Schmidt.

Schmidt, who is not a member of the panel, agrees with the finding that math curriculums often lacks coherence. "You're trying to do everything everywhere," he says.

The panel lays out a plan for a "focused, coherent progression" of skills. The progression includes fluency in adding and subtracting whole numbers by the end of third grade, and multiplying and dividing whole numbers by the end of fifth grade. Students should be able to solve problems involving percent, ratio and rate by the end of seventh grade.

The panel issues a call for an "authentic algebra course" for many students by eighth grade and a greater emphasis on fractions for young students.

Teachers told the panel students' biggest deficiency was a poor command of fractions, Faulkner says.

The panel suggests updating the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federally administered test, to emphasize mastery of fractions and other pre-algebra skills.

The report, to be delivered today to Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, could spark an effort to create a federally funded math program, much as the 2000 National Reading Panel led to the $1-billion-a-year Reading First program for early elementary grades.

"There was a recognition that we had to do for math what had been done for reading, which is to settle some of these long-standing skirmishes and get a better understanding about the core things that we know," Spellings says. "Educators are hungry for it, looking for it. This will be well-received."

On the "talent" question, Faulkner says the research is clear: "Effort counts. Students who believe that working hard will make them smarter in math actually do achieve better."

The belief that people who are good in math are simply born good at it is "not a cultural belief that's shared in China," he says.

What kids need to know — and when

After two years of work, the National Math Panel issues its recommendations today. They include calls for greater emphasis on fractions, algebra and key "benchmark" skills in early grades. Here's a sample:

Fluency with whole numbers Fluency with fractions Geometry and measurement
Grade 3 •Add and subtract
Grade 4 •Identify and use fractions and decimals, and compare them on a number line
Grade 5 •Multiply and divide •Compare fractions and decimals and common percents; add and subtract them •Solve problems involving perimeter and area of triangles and all quadrilaterals having at least one pair of parallel sides (i.e. trapezoids)
Grade 6 •Multiply, divide fractions and decimals •Add, subtract, multiply, divide positive and negative integers •Analyze the properties of two- and three-dimensional shapes and solve problems involving perimeter and area, surface area and volume
Grade 7 •Add, subtract, multiply, divide positive, negative fractions •Solve problems involving percent, ratio, and rate and extend this work to proportionality •Be familiar with the relationship between similar triangles and the concept of the slope of a line



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