Posted by: Stephen Wildstrom on March 14, 2008
I have spent more years than I care to remember reading reports of government advisory committees, but I have never encountered anything like “The Final Report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel” (PDF) released yesterday by the Education Dept. In uncharacteristically blunt language, the report offers an action plan for a radical reconstruction of math education, especially in kindergarten through 8th grade. The overhaul is needed, the panelist argue, because the U.S. is failing produce the technically literate workforce it needs and can no longer count on making up for the shortfall through immigration because “the dramatic success of economies overseas in the age of the Internet cast doubt on the viability of such a strategy in the future.”
It may come as a surprise to anyone who finished their middle school education before the mid-1980s, but [perhaps the [panel's most controversial recommendation is that elementary school students should memorize their addition and multiplications tables and develop proficiency in adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing fractions. Educators who felt that calculators had rendered manual calculation obsolete have been denigrating these skills for two decades.
But the National Mathematics Advisory Panel was focused on the readiness of student to learn algebra and found that algebra depends heavily on the computational skills that were being lost. (The panel ended up neutral on the controversial question of whether the use of calculators, particularly in early grades, helps or hurts the development of the ability to do mathematics. The quality of existing research, it found, simply is not good enough to come to a conclusion on the subject.)
The sad thing about the report that despite the unanimity on a panel that represents a broad spectrum of the mathematics and math education communities, it will take a decade or more for its recommendations to be implemented. It simply takes that long for curriculum guidelines to be recast, textbooks to be rewritten, and teachers to be trained or retrained. And in that time, a lot more damage can be done.