Author: Lack of Math Skills Dangerous for America

Monday, 23 Sep 2013 11:13 AM

By Sandy Fitzgerald and John Bachman

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American schoolchildren have fallen dangerously behind other students worldwide, especially when it comes to math, a dilemma that could have far-reaching implications into the United States' future, Harvard government professor Paul Peterson says.

"We know that math skills are in scarce supply in our society," Peterson told Newsmax TV's John Bachman, explaining that students with higher math skills "translates into a higher quality workforce and the economy as a whole prospers."

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Peterson, along with Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessman, wrote the book "Endangering Prosperity: A Global View of the American School," which, among other things, shows how American students are running behind their counterparts worldwide not only in math, but other subjects as well.

Peterson said math is in high demand at this point because "you just really can't do a lot of things unless you've got some basic skills in math."

In addition, if math skills could rise to the level of those in other countries, Peterson said, "you could grow the whole American economy by an enormous amount. We figure it's about a 20 percent increase in wages if we could get up to the Canadian level."

But the loss in wages could be astronomical if the learning level of American students is not increased, he said.

"If you look over the whole course of the 21st century, what's left of it — and there's a lot of it left — it adds up to about $77 trillion," said Peterson. "If you translate that down in wages, it's 20 percent a year. You don't see it in the first year. It shows up only gradually as more educated people enter into the workforce, but the long-term impact is enormous."

In some states, scores are rising, noted Bachman, with Florida being a particularly interesting bright spot because it's not only throwing extra money at the problem. Other states showing marked improvement include Maryland and Massachusetts.

Nationally, Peterson said, about $12,000 is spent per pupil, "which is a very large sum of money — as much as any other country in the world, except perhaps Switzerland." However, some states have poured a great deal of money into their school systems, but not seen a great response.

In Florida, though, where there is very little additional money going into schools, students are succeeding because schools have a "clear accountability system," said Peterson.

"They tell parents, teachers, principals just exactly how each school is doing," he said.
"They have a reading program that is very rigorous, they have a math program. They're holding students accountable, they're giving students choices, they're giving families choices."

Massachusetts, which has always had good schools, has improved a great deal in recent years because of programs such as a high school graduation exam.

"That's what countries around the world do that we don't do," Peterson said. "They expect kids to learn something in high school, and they say you need to pass this examination when you leave your high school and that's going to determine the rest of your career."

With such exams, Peterson said, "high school students are given a very clear indication of what it is they're supposed to know and what they're supposed to learn, and that just can change the nature of a high school experience."

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While there have been federal programs, such as President Barack Obama's "Race to the Top" and former President George W. Bush's "No Child Left Behind," educators and teachers often resist sweeping changes in their schools, and Peterson said states will need to take leadership.

"I don't think we can expect something to happen just at the local district level," said Peterson, noting that very few people turn out to vote in local school-board elections, and members are often too influenced by school employees.

"If we're going to have leadership, it's going to have to come at the state level," said Peterson. "The federal government is probably too far away. We have had a lot of presidents very committed to trying to bring about change and our current president's as committed as any of them, but it's really hard to do something in Washington and make the local districts pay any attention."

Peterson is optimistic about online education, though.

"The secret to this is to make sure that we have online education that's available on a course-by-course basis so that students can pick the teacher that they would like the best," he said. "If you have good teachers online, then they don't have to take a course from a weak teacher in their local high school. But they can take other courses from their local teacher in their high school if that's where the best course is."

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