Making Math Education Count

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The leading organization for U.S. mathematics teachers today spelled out what's important for students to know at each primary grade level. Officials at the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) hope their 40-page document, titled Curriculum Focal Points: A Quest for Coherence, will help change the "mile-wide, inch-deep" approach that they say has left most U.S. students without a solid preparation for higher-level mathematics.

Current state frameworks for teaching mathematics to children in elementary and middle school (kindergarten through grade 8) can include more than 100 objectives for a particular grade, says Francis "Skip" Fennell, NCTM president. "That's too many topics, covered too superficially," he says. Instead, the Focal Points contain only three topics per grade. In grade 1, the emphasis is on developing understanding of addition and subtraction, whole-number relationships, and assembling geometric shapes, for example, whereas grade 3 teachers are told to home in on whole-number division, fractions with unlike denominators and decimals, and three-dimensional shapes.

"For most teachers, the value of Focal Points lies in organizing and prioritizing what they are already doing," says Bonnie Hagelberger, a veteran first-grade teacher in Minnesota and NCTM board member. "Teachers will say, 'Just tell me what you want me to concentrate on, and I'll teach it.' Focal Points gives them that guidance."

The new document, a 2-year effort by the council, is intended to build upon a 2000 report, Principles and Standards for School Mathematics, that states and local school districts use as a benchmark to develop their curricula. The Focal Points are the first time that NCTM has flagged the most critical ideas for students at each grade level, says Fennell, but they are not intended to be the last word. "People may disagree with what we have recommended," he says. "That's fine. Our goal is to start the debate, in every state and district in the country, about what is most important for our kids to be learning."

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