Opinion
Education Letter to the Editor

Math Computation and Science Skills

December 08, 2009 2 min read

To the Editor:

In their Commentary “Will Science and Engineering Now Be a Good Career?” (Nov. 11, 2009), Lindsay Lowell and Hal Salzman claim that over the past few decades, there has been “no decline in the K-12 performance of U.S. students” with respect to the math skills needed to pursue a career in science. But do the data support this finding?

With 134 districts that adopt textbooks independently, my state of Virginia offers a random sample of curricula nationwide. Between 1998 and 2002, scores in math computation for the state’s 9th graders fell from the low 46th percentile to the abysmal 39th percentile. As a chemistry instructor, I saw a generation of students who could no longer balance an equation without a calculator. A poor background in computation creates intense frustration for students.

Why did this happen? Since the 1960s, math textbooks have steadily decreased practice with numbers. After California’s 1992 adoption of math standards by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, “math facts” nearly disappeared from textbooks nationwide. Publishers must serve the California market.

And it wasn’t just textbooks. In my children’s suburban schools, officials forbade teachers to use math flashcards or other “timed drill.” My children were taught that six times seven meant six rows of seven dots. That’s nice, but in the sciences (and other jobs), you need to know six times seven.

Messrs. Lowell and Salzman also report that U.S. universities “are graduating as many scientists and engineers as they ever have.” That’s true. But in 2006, only 33 percent of engineering doctorates awarded in this country went to U.S. citizens, while 37 percent went to citizens of China and India. In electrical engineering, a key field in the technology industry, 23 percent of U.S. doctorates went to U.S. citizens.

Many noncitizens remain here and make enormous contributions to the economy. That said, if we were to prepare more of our own children for careers in science, it would strengthen public support for education, America’s ability to compete, and the freedoms that this nation stands for.

California has adopted improved standards in recent years, and numbers are returning to some math curricula, though the purchase of improved texts is slow, especially when budgets are tight. For American children to be successful in the sciences, we must speed the adoption of standards and textbooks that focus on math computation.

Rick Nelson

Falls Church, Va.

A version of this article appeared in the December 09, 2009 edition of Education Week as Math Computation and Science Skills

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