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Topic: Who Says Math Has to Be Boring?
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Jerry P. Becker

Posts: 16,576
Registered: 12/3/04
Who Says Math Has to Be Boring?
Posted: Dec 11, 2013 2:00 PM
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From The New York Times / Sunday Review, Saturday, December 7, 2013.
Who Says Math Has to Be Boring?


American students are bored by math, science and engineering. They
buy smartphones and tablets by the millions but don't pursue the
skills necessary to build them. Engineers and physicists are often
portrayed as clueless geeks on television, and despite the high pay
and the importance of such jobs to the country's future, the vast
majority of high school graduates don't want to go after them.

Nearly 90 percent of high school graduates say they're not interested
in a career or a college major involving science, technology,
engineering or math, known collectively as STEM, according to a
survey of more than a million students who take the ACT test. The
number of students who want to pursue engineering or computer science
jobs is actually falling, precipitously, at just the moment when the
need for those workers is soaring. (Within five years, there will be
2.4 million STEM job openings.) [See ]

One of the biggest reasons for that lack of interest is that students
have been turned off to the subjects as they move from kindergarten
to high school. Many are being taught by teachers who have no
particular expertise in the subjects. They are following outdated
curriculums and textbooks. They become convinced they're "no good at
math," that math and science are only for nerds, and fall behind.

That's because the American system of teaching these subjects is
broken. For all the reform campaigns over the years, most schools
continue to teach math and science in an off-putting way that appeals
only to the most fervent students. The mathematical sequence has
changed little since the Sputnik era: arithmetic, pre-algebra,
algebra, geometry, trigonometry and, for only 17 percent of students,
calculus. Science is generally limited to the familiar trinity of
biology, chemistry, physics and, occasionally, earth science.

These pathways, as one report from the National Academy of Education
put it, assume that high school students will continue to study
science and math in college. But fewer than 13 percent do, usually
the most well-prepared and persistent students, who often come from
families where encouragement and enrichment are fundamental. The
system is alienating and is leaving behind millions of other
students, almost all of whom could benefit from real-world problem
solving rather than traditional drills.

Only 11 percent of the jobs in the STEM fields require high-level
math, according to Anthony Carnevale, director of the Center on
Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University. But the rest
still require skills in critical thinking that most high school
students aren't getting in the long march to calculus.

Finding ways to make math and science exciting for students who are
in the middle of the pack could have a profound effect on their
futures, providing them with the skills that will help them get
technical jobs in the fields of food science, computer networking or
medicine. It would entice many students who are insecure in their own
abilities into advanced careers. But it is going to require a
fundamentally different approach to teaching these subjects from
childhood through high school. Here are a few of the many possible
ideas to begin that change.

A More Flexible Curriculum

American students need vastly improved skills in math and science -
they ranked 30th among students in 65 nations in math - but they do
not all have to be trained to be mathematicians or scientists. While
all students need a strong grasp of the fundamentals of critical
thinking and problem solving, including algebra and geometry, they
should be offered a greater choice between applied skills and the
more typical abstract courses.

This is not an endorsement of tracking, the old practice of shunting
some students into vocational classes while others are prepped for
college. Every graduate should be ready for college (whether for a
two- or four-year degree) but should also be exposed to the variety
of skills that will be demanded as the country continues its shift to
a post-industrial economy. As a study by the Georgetown center notes,
very few high schools offer career or technical education; any
deviation from a classical math education is viewed with suspicion.
[See ]

Research has shown that the right mix of career and technical
education can reduce dropout rates, and the courses offered don't
have to be from the old "industrial arts" ghettos. They should be
taught at a challenging level and make students aware of careers that
are now being ignored. Take engineering, for example, a field that
pays well and needs ever more workers. Most high school students say
they have no interest in the subject. That's largely because few of
them ever encounter it: Only 3 percent of graduates have taken an
engineering course. Only 19 percent of students have taken a computer
science course, mostly at the advanced placement level. [See ; See ]

The Common Core math standards now being adopted by most states are
an important effort to raise learning standards, particularly in
primary and middle school, when many students begin to fall behind.
[See ]They encourage the use of
technology and applied thinking, moving students away from rote
memorization. At the high school level, they would introduce all
students to useful concepts like real-world modeling. But the
standards also assume that all high school students should pursue a
high-level math track, studying quadratic equations, transformational
geometry and logarithms. The standards need more flexibility to
ensure that they do not stand in the way of nontraditional but
effective ways to learn, including career-oriented study.

Very Early Exposure to Numbers

Only 18 percent of American adults can calculate how much a carpet
will cost if they know the size of the room and the per square yard
price of the carpet, according to a federal survey. One in five
American adults lack the basic math skills expected of eighth
graders, making them unfit for many newly created jobs. In many
cases, that's because they weren't exposed to numbers at an early age.

A new study, by researchers at the University of Missouri, showed
that the most important factor that predicted math success in middle
school and upward was an understanding of what numbers are before
entering the first grade. Having "number system knowledge" in
kindergarten or earlier - grasping that a numeral represents a
quantity, and understanding the relationships among numbers - was a
more important factor in math success by seventh grade than
intelligence, race or income.[See ]

Children of all backgrounds can build a good foundation in math with
early exposure to numbers, which should be required in all preschool
classes. But less than half of 4-year-olds are enrolled in full-day
pre-K programs, and only 70 percent of kindergartners go all day.
Although preschool enrollment has increased in recent years, it is
still not a high priority in many states and cities, as shown by the
cold reception to expansion proposals by President Obama and
Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio of New York.

Better Teacher Preparation

The most effective teachers have broad knowledge of their subjects.
Too many lack that preparation. More than half of the 6.7 million
students studying physical sciences - chemistry, physics and earth
science - are learning from teachers who did not major in those
subjects. Only 64 percent of those teachers are certified. The number
is better for math teachers, as 78 percent are certified, but that
still leaves three million math students being taught by uncertified
teachers. The problem is significantly worse in low-income
communities and in middle
schools.[ ]

Some districts give additional instruction to science and math
teachers, or team new teachers with more experienced colleagues. But
the most important effort is the national campaign to add 100,000
STEM teachers by 2021. The Carnegie Corporation has led a coalition
of businesses, universities and other institutions to make it happen
at the ground level. The American Museum of Natural History, for
example, has pledged to prepare 130 certified science teachers by
2015. The University of Chicago will train 500 new teachers for
Chicago's public schools over five years. The campaign now has
commitments for more than 37,000 new teachers, but it still has far
to go. [See ]

Experience in the Real World

A growing number of schools are helping students embrace STEM courses
by linking them to potential employers and careers, taking math and
science out of textbooks and into their lives. The high school in
Brooklyn known as P-Tech, which President Obama recently visited, is
a collaboration of the New York City public school system and the
City University of New York with IBM. It prepares students for jobs
like manufacturing technician and software specialist. Students work
with IBM mentors and are encouraged to earn both a diploma and an
associate degree after a combined six years in high school and
college. Ten more such schools are planned around the state, and last
month President Obama announced a promising new grant program to
encourage dozens more high schools to offer job-oriented STEM
education. [See ;

In Seattle, Raisbeck Aviation High School is working with Boeing and
other aerospace firms to mentor students in engineering and robotics.
Many schools are teaming with software companies to teach
programming, including two schools that are very popular in New York
City. Though many of these efforts remain untested, they center
around a practical and achievable goal: getting students excited
about science and mathematics, the first step to improving their
performance and helping them discover a career. [See ;
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: December 9, 2013
An earlier version of this editorial referred imprecisely to a unit
of measurement in a math problem. It is per square yard, not per yard.
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244

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