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Apodaca: Common Core may add up to math skills boost we need

May 11, 2013|By Patrice Apodaca

I worked on a story about Michael Milken many years ago, not long after the infamous junk-bond tycoon's release from prison. During the reporting phase, I observed him fulfilling his court-ordered community service by teaching a math clinic at a middle school in a low-income Los Angeles neighborhood.

The clinic was not at all what I had expected.

Milken, accompanied by his usual entourage, approached the job with the fervor of a motivational speaker. He knew the kids by name and took them through a series of math games, during which they used techniques they'd been taught to multiply and divide multiple-digit numbers quickly in their heads.

Milken's people tossed candy to winners, who jumped and whooped and exchanged high-fives. When the next problem was posed, hands shot up all over the room and some students nearly fell out of their chairs with excitement.

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Not your typical math class.

Obviously, Milken's multiplication tricks and sugary incentives smacked of gimmickry. I've sometimes wondered if the enthusiasm I witnessed had any real staying power with those students. I think about it particularly after reading articles that crop up with dreary regularity bemoaning the dismal state of math education in the United States.

One widely cited study published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in late 2011, for example, found that 32% of U.S. students were proficient in math in the eighth grade, placing our nation 32nd among 65 industrialized countries in math skills.

Only one state, Massachusetts, edged the 50% mark in the study, while California's math-proficiency ratio was a distressing 24%.

Many observers have issued caveats to such findings. They point out that countries with the highest math scores — Korea, Finland, Switzerland and Japan, for instance — have smaller, more homogenous societies.

But our economic and ethnic diversity offers only partial explanation, experts say. It's generally believed that we have a broader problem in math education, and it's costing us dearly in economic development and employment opportunities.

According to at least one estimate, nearly 40% of college students who begin in math or science end up switching majors, while U.S. employers continue to hire more foreign workers to fill highly skilled, high-paid technology jobs.

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