Indifference to math skills part of the problem

Celia R. Baker The Salt Lake Tribune  

Lawmakers are bothered by the lackluster math skills of Utah students -- and since 13 percent of Utah seniors haven't yet passed the math portion of the state's high school exit exam, they probably should be.

But a newly released national study suggests that parents and students across the nation aren't terribly worried about math.

As the math and science achievement of American students continues to lag behind that of their international peers, a survey of parents and high school students from the nonpartisan research organization Public Agenda says American parents feel the amount of math their children study now is about right.

Despite predictions about the role science and technology will play in the economy of the future, there is no rush on calculus classes, and more than four in 10 students say they don't want math to be a focus of their careers. The survey says:

* Parents' biggest worries about schools center around protecting children from drugs and alcohol, someone physically harming their child and negative influences from other students. The need for stronger math and science curriculum is far down the list.

* Top concerns among students include lack of respect for teachers and use of bad language, students who cheat and cut class, pressure to make good grades, and drug and alcohol abuse, the drop-out rate and fighting and weapons on school grounds. Only 28 percent say they are worried about not learning enough math and science.

* Forty-one percent of students say computer skill is essential, and 50 percent say that understanding science and having strong math skills are essential

Perhaps New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has hit upon the reason why students in countries such as China and Japan are outstripping their U.S. counterparts in math, science and technology.

In Friedman's book The World is Flat, oft-quoted on Utah's Capitol Hill during the current legislative session, he notes that Microsoft founder Bill Gates is recognized and adulated everywhere he goes whenever he travels in China.

Says Friedman: "In China today, Bill Gates is Britney Spears. In America today, Britney Spears is Britney Spears -- and that is our problem."

For the full Public Agenda report, visit

(c) 2006 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of Media NewsGroup, Inc. by NewsBank, Inc.