In the 2006 State of the Union Address, President George Bush used the word math five times. Why is this significant? Because it shows those in power are starting to acknowledge that the United States is losing its competitive edge in terms of math, science and technology in the 21st Century. So, what's being done about it? Since 2006, the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, appointed by the President, has studied how to get our students up to speed in math. They focused their attention on how to properly prepare students for algebra—a fundamental step towards understanding high school math.

On March 13th, 2008 the panel came back with several recommendations for our public school system, with the goal of getting every student fully prepared to take algebra in eighth grade. They said students in the elementary grades need to master:

  1. Computational fluency, meaning the student can effortlessly recall number facts.
  2. Computations involving fractions.
  3. Particular aspects of geometry, specifically understanding the concept of the slope of a line.

The main current in their findings is that right now, the curriculum in U.S. schools covers many topics superficially, and as a result kids walk into algebra without the fundamentals. The panel recommends that the curriculum be reined in, so that these three key skills can be worked to maturity, starting in the younger grades.

“Students in countries with high scores on international assessments, such as Singapore, China and Finland, study a very core basic set of materials up through the middle grades,” says Larry Martinek, a Los Angeles-based teacher and founder of Mathnasium, a chain of after-school math learning centers. For 34 years, Martinek has based his curriculum around the idea that math must hang together as a united body of knowledge, with one basic core skill leading on to another, for it to make sense to kids. Now, the world is catching on, and it's about time, according to Martinek.

“This report will cause a change in the thinking from the president working down to the Department of Education, through the state level, down to text books and ultimately, what's being taught in the class,” he says.

But, Martinek says all this change will take time, and current parents will most likely see the new curriculum in the backpacks of their grandchildren. That's all well and good, but if you're wondering what can be done for this generation of kids, Martinek offers an important piece of advice: do math with your child just as much as you read with your child. For parents who need help to get the ball rolling, here's a list of exercises that can be started in kindergarten, first and second grade, but are appropriate for any student of any age who needs help with basic mathematics concepts and skills. The trick is to do these exercises both orally and visually, with little or no writing. Pictures can be used as visual aides. Real-world objects (coins, blocks, etc.) should be used as appropriate.

Counting

The most basic skills in mathematics are counting and grouping (“seeing” numbers in groups). To develop counting skills, help children learn to count from any number, to any number, by any number. Do all counting forward and backward.

Basic: Count by 1s, starting at 0 (0, 1, 2, 3…250…), and starting at any number [e.g., 28 (28, 29, 30…40…)].

Intermediate: Count by 10s, starting at 0 (0, 10, 20…500…), starting at 5 (5, 15, 25…205…), and starting at any number [e.g., 37, 47, 57, 67…347…].

Advanced: Count by 3s, 4s, 6s, 7s, 8s, 9s, 11s, 12s, 15s, 20s, 25s, 50s, and 100s, starting at 0.

The pay-off: strong addition skills and the painless development of Times Tables.

Fractions

As counting skills begin to develop, fractions can be introduced. Long before introducing words like numerator and denominator, teach children that half means “2 parts the same,” and have them use this knowledge to figure–out things like:

Basic: “How much is half of 6? …10? …20? …26? …30? …50? …100? …248? …4,628?”

Intermediate: “How much is half of 5? …11? …15? …21? …49? …99? …175? …999? …2,001?”

Advanced: “How much is 7 take away 21/2?” “How much is 11/2, four times?” “How much is a 1/2 + 1/4?”

Don’t be afraid to ask these questions of kindergarten and first graders. The ability to “see” a whole as being a collection of parts should be learned in the early grades.

Problem Solving

Children become good problem solvers when they are asked to solve a broad range of problems early on, at home and at school. Start with easy questions; let the level of difficulty increase as the child’s ability grows.

Basic: “I’m 40 years old and you are 7. How old will I be when you are 10?”

Intermediate: “If 3 pieces of candy cost 25 cents, how many pieces can you buy for a dollar?”

Advanced: “How can you share 2 candy bars evenly with 3 kids?” (Draw a picture of two rectangles.)

Questions like these cause a child’s thought processes to become animated. Try it. You’ll see!

Martinek says parents should help their children build these skills over time, starting with basic counting and progressing down the list as your child's abilities develop. This will make math more intuitive, and only then will the all-too-popular whine “math sucks” recede into the background.