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Friday, March 14, 2008

Better math skills? | Multiply the basics
Posted on Fri, Mar. 14, 2008
Panel also advises that U.S. schools focus on fractions
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON Schools could improve students’ sluggish math scores by hammering home the basics, such as addition and multiplication, and increasing the focus on fractions and some geometry, a presidential panel recommended Thursday.

“Difficulty with fractions (including decimals and percents) is pervasive and is a major obstacle to further progress in mathematics, including algebra,” the panel, appointed by President Bush two years ago, said in a report.

Because success in algebra has been linked to higher graduation rates and college enrollment, the panel focused on improving areas that are the foundations of algebra. Average U.S. math scores on a variety of tests drop around middle school, when algebra typically begins. That trend also led the panel to focus on what’s happening before kids take algebra.

A major goal for students should be mastery of fractions, since that is a “severely underdeveloped” area and one that’s important to later algebra success, the report states.

“Students don’t know how to translate fractions into decimals or into percentages and they can’t locate fractions on a number line,” said panelist Tom Loveless, a senior fellow and education expert at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank.

The report also says other critical topics such as whole numbers and aspects of geometry and measurement should be studied in a more in-depth way.

“By building on a strong foundation of skills, students will be ready for rigorous courses in high school or earlier,” said Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, praising the report.

Spellings and the panelists emphasized the need to boost U.S. students’ math performance because of the increasing need for high-level math skills in today’s workplace and because of the need to compete with workers from other countries for global jobs.

U.S. students do particularly poorly on international tests. On one recent exam given to 15-year-olds in 30 industrialized countries, U.S. students posted an average score that was lower than the average in 23 of the other countries.

In recent years, there has been a dispute over whether children should learn a sequence of basic skills in math, including multiplication tables and some memorization, or should understand the theory behind math problems and come up with their own solutions.

The report says both quick recall of facts and conceptual understanding of math are beneficial. It also says students can benefit from both “teacher-directed” instruction and “student-centered instruction.”

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