07/10/2013 01:24 pm ET Updated Sep 09, 2013

Our Schools Don't Add Up

If your child is entering the job market and can't do double-digit division, he's competing against the last peasant in Mongolia who yoked a yak to a plow. If he can't do single-digit division, he's competing against the yak. Young people in the U.S. once wielded a tremendous advantage in the global job market: their foreign counterparts couldn't afford decent schools or textbooks. In the 1950s kids from then-impoverished foreign countries would show up for math tests armed with just an abacus and a handful of rocks. Now they show up with the same iPads and HP calculators as our kids. Our children have made meager progress in math and science, while the rest of the world can calculate the orbital path of the circles they run around us.

This is more than a problem. It's a trajectory that drags down national economic growth. Eric Hanushek of Stanford has shown that higher test scores especially in math and science would improve annual GDP by nearly 1 percent. Don't sneeze at 1 percent! An additional 1 percent is enough to spur almost 1 million new jobs in the U.S. and lift incomes by about two-thirds over the next fifty years.

How do better math scores translate into a stronger economy? First, skilled jobs that require math pay more. Georgetown University's Center on Education reported that 65 percent of individuals with a bachelors degree in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) out-earn their peers with masters degrees in non-STEM jobs. Second, even amid today's flabby global economy, such jobs are more plentiful and often unfilled. Third, when executives are deciding where to locate new operations, they assess the skills of the local population. That new BMW plant won't come to your town if your young people stumble around like ninnies. Fourth, without numeracy, people act like financial illiterates. When you are financially illiterate, you don't save for retirement, you rack up reckless credit card debt, and you may end up "investing" all your money with a fly-by-night, get-rich-quick salesman from a soon-to-be-defunct bank.

Sadly, too many kids drop out of math too early. If a 15-year-old takes even two years off, it's nearly impossible to claw back. We need better teachers, but we also need a new approach to teaching. Current teaching tools do a poor job conveying "number sense," that intuitive understanding that allows people to estimate, make connections among sets, and confidently consider different methods of solving problems without gasping for breath. To most children, addition, multiplication and distance word problems are three distant, sometimes scary planets, possibly in separate galaxies. When a teacher first grabs that plus sign and tilts it to form a multiplication symbol, the eyes of students tend to roll, too.

The Chinese may have an advantage in developing number sense, since along with Arabic numerals, they grow up with pictorial depictions of numbers. To a Chinese child, numbers are not simply numerals. They are images. Our brains like images. Memory experts tell us we can easily remember a shopping list of 100 items if we just picture those items in our mind rather than scribbling down letters on paper.

Sometimes we need to fundamentally re-examine even the basic tools of the classroom. Take the number line, which hangs on the walls of kindergartens across the world. Why is it horizontal? Are we sure that this linear image is the most effective way to demonstrate relations among numbers? What if it had a different shape, for example, a zig-zag? Innovations in design can help develop math sense in our children and teach them in a way that engages and plays to their love of images.

Churchill famously said to Franklin Roosevelt, "Give us the tools, and we will finish the job." We can't expect our children to finish the job unless we give them better tools. All across the world tonight, students are trying to figure out a complicated word problem that asks what time a plane will arrive at JFK if it's traveling 550 miles per hour with a full load of fuel and is showing a two and half hour movie. Whose children will be equipped with the critical thinking skills to come up with the right answer? Are we so foolish and irresponsible to believe that those children who fail will be offered the best jobs in this 21st century? Some will get lucky, of course. But I don't like those odds, and no one with a millimeter of numeracy should.

Todd G. Buchholz, inventor of the Math Arrow and CEO of Sproglit, LLC is a former White House economic adviser, hedge fund manager and winner of Harvard's Allyn Young Teaching Award. In 2011, Todd published 'Rush: Why You Need and Love the Rat Race.'