A massive overhaul of math instruction in U.S. schools will be necessary if students are to achieve the skills and understanding required in today's high-tech world, according to a long-awaited report from the National Research Council, released Tuesday.
The chief goal should be to integrate the teaching of basic computational skills with instruction in the underlying concepts of mathematics, according to the report.
"Both of these directions are incomplete without the other," said Jeremy Kilpatrick, a professor of math education at the University of Georgia in Athens and chairman of the panel that wrote the report.
Although the need for both types of knowledge might seem self-evident, bitter battles have been waged over which to emphasize more in classrooms. The fight has pitted traditionalists -- advocates of rote and repetition -- against those who favor hands-on activities to help students make sense of abstract concepts.
Nowhere has the pendulum swung more fiercely than in California. After several years of favoring a more conceptual approach, the state Board of Education three years ago adopted standards that are more geared to basics. They discourage, for example, the use of calculators by young children, preferring that elementary pupils memorize basic computational skills like multiplication tables. The board recently approved new math textbooks that tend to emphasize such skills.
Many districts and schools are grappling with how to put together curricula that meet the standards without sacrificing more abstract thinking. The new study offers little hard-core help there.
"We still don't have a lot of research pinpointing programs that work vs. those that don't," said Richard E. Mayer, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who helped write the report.
Kilpatrick, who years ago taught math at a Berkeley, Calif., middle school, said teachers must look to the real world for help in making math seem more relevant. "If I were a math teacher in California right now," he said, "I'd be using the energy crisis to help kids look at big numbers like megawatts and kilowatts and ask questions about how you would price electricity."
The report emphasized that teacher training will be key to bringing students along. One problem is that many teachers themselves do not like math and are anxious about it.
"We have large numbers of math-phobic teachers," said Janet Nicholas, a former member of the state Board of Education. "There's a lot of work to be done."
The math report, called "Adding It Up: Helping Children Learn Mathematics," was written by a 16-member committee at the request of the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education. The panel's charge was to review the diverse research on math learning in preschool through eighth grade and to recommend steps for policy-makers.
The influential National Research Council is a nonprofit institution that provides scientific advice under a congressional charter. Three years ago, the council helped to settle the emotional battle over how best to teach reading.
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