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What Can U.S. Educators Do to Improve Math Skills?

As U.S. students continue to lag in their math skills, when compared to students from across the globe, the long-term economic stability of the United States may be in jeopardy.

In a special 2009 supplement to The Condition of Education, it was reported that in math, U.S. 15-year-olds’ scores now lag behind those of 31 countries.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan responded to the report by saying, “These results show that for us to stay competitive and move forward we have to get our students ready for global competition.”

The Final Report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel from the U.S. Department of Education noted that an individual’s success in math provides additional college and career options as well as increased prospects for future income.

While careers in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields are “plentiful, well-paying, challenging,” according to a report in the Notices of the American Mathematical Society (AMS), the explanations for the continuing math achievement gap are varied. The AMS report notes, for instance, that many U.S. students do not participate in mathematics because of the social stigma attached.

Another difficulty highlighted in the report is the mathematics preparation of teachers, which The Final Report of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel concluded must be strengthened to improve teacher’s effectiveness in the classroom.

Innovation adding up
But even before these latest findings, educators around the country have been working to help students achieve in math.

Math Circles is an outreach initiative, backed by the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI), that brings mathematicians and mathematical scientists into contact with students and teachers after school or on weekends to work on interesting problems or topics in mathematics. The goal is to get the students excited about mathematics as they participate in real-world problem-solving.

Dr. David Auckly, an associate director at MSRI who also works on the organization’s outreach programs, including Math Circles, said that in Eastern Europe, for example, students practice math as an after-school activity as they would band or football. He sees Math Circles as one way to encourage that sort of interest and enthusiasm.

The 2008–09 San Francisco Math Circle (SFMC) included 41 teachers and 365 students, with an average of 96 students and 17 teachers attending the program weekly. And the effects are exponential—the 41 teachers who attended SFMC, for example, influenced at least 2,200 students when they returned to the classroom.

Dr. Brandy Wiegers, coordinator for the National Association of Math Circles, explained that SFMC exemplifies how Math Circles can support teachers in helping students with their math skills/achievement. There are at least 60 other programs across the country in 20 different states that are striving to meet this same goal.

In an external evaluation of SFMC, one teacher-participant commented that Math Circles provided an extracurricular program that gave access to math enrichment activities for students at any level. And on the other side of the equation: One student interviewed said that Math Circles made math fun and provided new ways of learning.