Math Gains Add Up; Teachers Stress Real World, Reasoning

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Byline: Christian Toto, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

It's hard to imagine anyone at a cocktail party braying about their ignorance of science, history or reading comprehension. Cathy Seeley fears the same social taboo doesn't apply to mathematics.

Ms. Seeley, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in Reston, hears people eagerly confess their lack of math skills "more than I would like to."

It's easy to see why at first blush. How could all those complicated calculus and algebraic problems truly impact one's daily life?

Ms. Seeley partially blames the old math - the way teachers taught mathematics to previous generations.

"Many adults right now learned algebra and geometry in ways that were pretty abstract and unrelated to the real word," says Ms. Seeley, whose group advocates improving mathematics education across the country from kindergarten through high school.

"Today, you see high school math in general being taught in ways much more focused on applications and how the topics are related to each other," she says. "It's a significant shift. We educators have recognized the importance of mathematics to every student, not just those going on to sciences."

Modern math classes emphasize "functional relationships," says Ms. Seeley, who adds that her organization works with the CBS series "Numbers" to help its characters solve crimes via math.

One example is comparing cell phone plans. Teachers can give students two comparable plans and let them use algebra to determine which is more cost effective. One might offer an instant rebate, while the other allows for more free minutes per month, for example.

Susan Pacifico, a teacher and secondary math specialist for the Arlington County School District, says most math teachers get asked two or three times a week by students the eternal question "why do we have to do this?"

In some instances, Mrs. Pacifico doesn't have an answer the students want to hear.

"Some of the math topics we study don't have a direct application [to the real world]. They set the foundation for higher-level math that does have direct applications," Mrs. Pacifico says.

"It wasn't asked so much 20 years ago ... students are a little bit more outspoken and curious [today], which is a good thing," Mrs. Pacifico says. "Math teachers are always going to have to explain this."

Abdul-Aziz Yakubu, chairman of Howard University's mathematics department, says even college students question the math's application to the real world.

Mr. Yakubu and his peers help fight that perception, in part, by pointing to history.

Researchers have helped fight the spread of diseases by using mathematical models, he says.

"There was a time when people thought to eradicate malaria you had to kill every mosquito on Earth," he says. Mathematical models showed something far more realistic.

"All you want to do is reduce mosquitoes to a certain [population] size. That is enough to eradicate the disease," Mr. Yakubu says. "A lot of places were able to eliminate malaria diseases just from these facts. …