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Priyamvada Natarajan Headshot

Close the Math Gap

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This has been the summer of our numerical discontent.

As a nation, we've been riveted by the debates over the debt-ceiling crisis, the credit downgrade, the dizzying ascents and descents of the stock market. But how many people actually understand the numbers they're watching?

It's not just how many zeroes in a trillion that's so hard for us to track. My own day-to-day observations confirm that many Americans can barely make change. At the supermarket where I buy groceries, I've watched more than one encounter at the cash register where both customer and clerk are befuddled at the prospect of double-checking the sums.

"Is this is the right change?'' a customer will say, looking at the coins in her hand.

"I don't know,'' the clerk answers. "It's what the machine says.''

I'm an astrophysicist and a professor, so my day job involves manipulating intractable numbers that characterize our universe. This renders me a dinner party curiosity item. "That must involve a lot of hard math,'' the guest next to me admits cheerfully. "I can't even balance my checkbook!''

The numbers back up this distressing lack of numerical dexterity.

According to the International Center for Education Statistics, in 2009, the average U.S. mathematics literacy score for 15 -year-old students fell below the average score of students in more than 30 developed countries, including the United Kingdom, Germany, France and Korea, to name a few.

Earlier this year, the United States hosted the first-ever International Summit on Teaching, gathering instructors, union leaders and education ministers from 25 countries to a meeting in New York. One of the striking results from this meeting: our math education doesn't come close to the way students are trained in countries where math scores are higher.

In countries that lead math education rankings, schoolteachers are not judged only on the basis of their students' test scores, but rather on their success at developing well-rounded, high-performing students. In addition, teacher pay is higher.

There is a correlation between math education and the innovation needed to create jobs and spark an economy. Just look at the fact that the United States is outranked both in math education rankings and in the Global Innovation Index by countries such as Singapore, Finland, Korea and Japan.

Our numbers, in other words, simply aren't adding up.

We are failing to teach our children the fundamentals of mathematics and quantitative reasoning skills. These skills form the foundation upon which future technical education is based. Children do not attain adequate proficiency, develop math phobia and as a result we lose a vast talent pool of potential engineers and scientists. Most of the high-paying jobs of the future will require mathematical fluency -- a skill that most American students leaving school do not come close to possessing.

So how do we fix this math problem? We need more creative government and private sector partnerships to support numerical literacy programs to keep the US competitive. Earlier this year, Intel, for example, made a 10-year, $200 million commitment to promote math and science education. Many non-profits are active in this arena -- one is Math for America that helps recruit talented young people into teaching mathematics in schools.

In addition to a well-funded school system, we need to encourage and exploit innovative approaches for learning outside the classroom. An example is the Khan Academy. Starting with a set of YouTube math video tutorials for his cousins, Sal Khan has developed a library of 2,400 instructional videos, each 12 minutes long on a range of topics. After every math lesson that focuses on a conceptual theme, students can assess their progress while working at their own pace.

One of the nagging problems with math in schools is that the weaker students never catch up. Self-paced learning outside the classroom offers a unique way forward. Sal's videos offer concepts in bite-sized chunks and the ability to return to these videos repetitively ensures that students learn difficult mathematical ideas effectively. These new learning methodologies could augment and transform math education, and ensure that no child is truly left behind.

Finally, it's time to return to old-fashioned rote learning. My work now involves complicated and abstract math, but I started where everyone can: with the multiplication tables. Here are two truths: 7 x 5 = 35 and developing dexterity with mental arithmetic leads to comfort with quantitative reasoning.

We also need to pay math teachers more and create incentives, like a bonus system modeled on how Wall Street compensates its highly productive cadre.

As Congress battles over spending and cost cutting, it is imperative that funding for math education programs does not fall victim. Our future rests on fixing math education now.