Schools could improve students' sluggish math scores by hammering home the basics, such as addition and multiplication, and then increasing the focus on fractions and 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 is linked to higher graduation rates and college enrollment, the panel focused on improving areas that form the foundation for algebra. Average U.S. math scores on a variety of tests drop around middle school, when algebra coursework typically begins. That trend 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.
It goes on to say that other critical topics — such as whole numbers and aspects of geometry and measurement — should be studied in a more in-depth way.
Streamlining the curricula
When it comes to whole numbers, the report states that students must have a clear grasp of the meaning of basic operations of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, among other things.
With geometry and measurement, students should be able to find unknown lengths, angles and areas, the report states.
In general, U.S. math curricula ought to be streamlined, according to the report.
"There is I think a tendency in American curricula to cover too many things too shallowly," Larry Faulkner, the panel's chair and the former president of the University of Texas, said in a briefing with reporters.
Diplomacy on teaching methods
The report takes a diplomatic stance when it comes to taking a position on the best methods to teach math to kids.
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 solutions on their own.
The report says both quick and effortless recall of facts and conceptual understanding of math are beneficial.
In addition, the back-to-basics camp has tended to favor "teacher-directed" instruction, in which teachers do all the explaining, while the opposing side has backed "student-centered instruction," in which students have the main responsibility for learning math — often through working with peers.
The panel found students can benefit from both styles.
"You need some element of discovery to allow kids to secure concepts in their minds, and you need to be able to have a reasonably efficient approach to be able to cover the material," Faulkner said.
Overcoming kids' insecurities
Teachers should emphasize that effort pays off, because too many kids feel that they are just not good at math and give up too early, according to the report.
"In many ways this country seems to have a culture of belief in talent, or a talent-driven approach to math — that either you can do it or you can't," Faulkner said.
He added that much more research is needed to understand why certain teachers are able to boost their students' math skills. "Very little is known about these things, surprisingly little I think to this panel — given the importance of that question," Faulkner said.
The report did note that elementary- and middle-school teachers need more math preparation.
It took aim at math textbooks, saying they are too long and lack coherence.
Textbook publishers say they are just trying to cover all the things in various state standards. Like for other subjects, each state sets its own math standards dictating what students should learn and when. Many critics say students would be better off with a single national standard, but the panel didn't weigh in on that.