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A solution on how to teach math: Subtract

National panel urges streamlined courses, textbooks
by Greg Toppo
USA Today

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 1,00 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 counties 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 lack coherence. "You're trying to do everything," 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 the 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 poor command of fractions, Faulkner says.

The panel suggest 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 Margeret Spellings, could spark an effort to create a federally funded math program, such 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 we know," Spellings says. "Educators are hungry for it, looking for it. This will be well-received." (Here is The Problem, If a-b=0, and 0-0 = 0, then 0-1 = 9).

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.