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I feel sorry for today's students....and even more sorry for their teachers. Society, educational researchers, and politicians send so many mixed messages that one gets dizzy. On the one hand, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee was considering a proposal to allocate $1.3 billion (!) to public schools to teach Chinese language and culture. Think about what could be done if that money was directed at improving mathematics education.

Compare the above proposal with the comments of Michael Shayer, applied psychologist, that 11- and 12-year old students are "now on average between two and three years behind where they were 15 years ago" in terms of cognitive and conceptual development. His claim is based on a five-year study involving 10,000 students spread acoss four different countries.

Why the drop? Paul Black, professor at Kings College, claims that one of the culprits is an increased focus on getting students to perform well on standardized tests, at the expense of their understanding fundamental concepts. Black notes: "Research from around the world shows that, when the stakes are high, teachers teach to the tests. This produces a short-term, three-year uplift in results before they plateau. We also get to see some artificial results, such as in the US, where every state is above the national average in its test scores." An interesting claim in itself!

Shayer adds another view: "I would suggest that the most likely reasons are the lack of experiential play in primary schools, and the growth of a video-game, TV culture. Both take away the kind of hands-on play that allows kids to experience how the world works in practice and to make informed judgements about abstract concepts."

Am I worried? Yes, but for a different reason. Using mathematics via a linear model, if the trend continues, kids will be in the negative conceptual/cognitive range by the year 2066!

Source: J. Crace's "Children are Less Able Than They Used to Be," Guardian, January 24, 2006.