Shoring up math skills

In the past few months, I’ve read two books about China and India and their emerging economies. The first was The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman, the New York Times columnist, and the second was The Elephant and the Dragon by Robyn Meredith, who writes for Forbes.
It was the second time I’d attempted to digest Friedman’s The World is Flat and although I think he spends too much time justifying his massive metaphor, he’s got some salient points. Specifically, Friedman posits that India and China are using two elements—the fragmenting of the assembly line (termed the disassembly line) and the emergence of Internet and computer technologies—to drive more of their workers into the global marketplace.
In some respect’s Meredith’s 2007 book picks up where Friedman’s The World Is Flat left off. While Meredith doesn’t waste time on metaphors, she describes the impacts of two major economies—China and India—entering the global capitalism arena and what that means for the rest of the world.
Chinese leaders realized in the mid-1970s that their nation would have to make significant changes to start to bring its people out of poverty. They calculated that they needed at least 8 percent growth annually or the Communist Party might be overthrown. They’ve been met with stunning success. According to Meredith, China’s gross domestic product has grown an average of 9.6 percent per year, in contrast to the United State’s GDP, which has seen an average of 3 percent growth. China now has the fourth largest economy in the world. The result has seen the growth of the Chinese middle class. India’s turn toward capitalism has been slower, hampered by its Democratic processes and the isolationist influence of Gandhi. Economic evolutions began in 1991 and have continued. In 2005, there were 83,000 millionaires in India.
The results have had real effects on American workers and jobs—not only blue collar manufacturing work but traditional white collar “back office”-type work is being off-shored. According to the McKinsey Global Institute approximately 300,000 American jobs will move overseas in the next 30 years. Of the world’s largest 500 companies, 400 currently send some middle class work off-shore to India. IBM has 43,000 workers in 14 Indian cities.
Meredith puts forward that “off-shoring” will exacerbate three main areas of concern for Western middle class workers: job losses in specific industries like technology, lower wages as companies evaluate what each job is worth, and less job stability as companies continually evaluate where they can most efficiently have work done. She says that the shift may cause an increase in high-paying jobs in the United States but says many middle-class workers will have to become accustomed to changing careers more often.
Neither Meredith nor Friedman believes that politicians should attempt to stem the tide of jobs leaving the United States. Instead, they agree that the United States needs to do a better job being innovative—creating more higher-paying jobs, instead of low-paying, low-skill work.
To do this, the authors agree that America must strengthen its education system and focus its children’s interests toward developing strong math and science skills—expertise that will be critical in the emerging global economy.
Against that backdrop, I was dismayed to read the Gunnison RE1J School District’s results on the Colorado Student Assessment Program test, released this month. It showed that only 34 percent of Gunnison County’s tenth graders are proficient in math for their grade level in 2008. This figure was down from 40 percent proficiency in 2006 and 38 percent last year. Throughout the state, only 25 percent of tenth graders were deemed proficient.
The district’s administrators don’t have all the answers as to why test scores are sinking. However, they point out that by 15 and 16 years old, kids have evidently figured out that CSAP scores don’t get them into college. On average, students do much better a year later on the ACT test, which is used for higher education admissions. The Rocky Mountain News reported on July 29 that Colorado’s juniors earned a composite score of 19.9 this year, up from 19.1 in previous years. But the biggest ground was gained in English and science reasoning, not necessarily math skills. Compared to the state, Gunnison County’s scores were higher with a composite score of 21.8; CBCS juniors scored 22.3 (down slightly from last year but up from 2006). At the local school, math was the weakest area of those tested.
The school district has taken a positive step forward and hired a mathematics interventionist to work with elementary and middle school students who need extra help. It has also dedicated monies to improve education for existing math teachers. Next year, the school board will consider funding a new math curriculum.
Now, we as a culture need to accept and venerate the importance of math and science. A 2007 report by the non-profit Public Agenda found that parents, secondary students and communities are failing to appreciate the importance of upper-level math skills, even as we encourage basic level skills. The study found that only 23 percent of parents and 26 percent of students surveyed value high-level math skills.
We need to make sure our kids are interested and educated in math and science and that they maintain that interest through their high school years.
If we don’t, our children will emerge on the world stage only to learn they’ve fallen behind.
—Aleesha Towns

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