January 17, 2007

A KNACK FOR NUMBERS

By Senator Mike Crapo

According to the Miller Center for Public Affairs at the University of Virginia, George Washington â??displayed a gift for mathematicsâ?? from early in his life. The essay continues, â??This knack for numbers combined with his quiet confidence and ambition caught the attention of Lord Fairfax, head of one of the most powerful families in Virginia.â?? Young Washington worked as a surveyor for Lord Fairfax; these forays into the wilderness undoubtedly laying groundwork for his skill in later years leading the revolutionary army. Thomas Jefferson, too, cultivated critical academic skills. Jefferson attended William and Mary College in Virginia, taking classes in science, mathematics, rhetoric, philosophy, and literature. The Miller Center observes, â??He also studied law, and by the time he was admitted to the Virginia bar in April 1767, many considered him to have one of the nation's best legal minds.â??Our distinctive American focus on education, based on examples set by our founding fathers, must be constantly evaluated for effectiveness. Current history is marked by significant and steady advancements in technology and science. The public education system must keep pace, or jeopardize one of our nationâ??s hallmarksâ??strong, comprehensive public education. As we know, itâ??s a quest with neither summit nor end. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics 2005, since 1978 in the U.S.:â?¢ The percentage of thirteen-year-olds performing at or above proficiency in moderately complex mathematical procedures and reasoning has increased from 18 to 29 percent. â?¢ The percentage of nine-year-olds performing at or above proficiency in numerical operations and beginning mathematical problem-solving has climbed from 20 to 42 percent. â?¢ The percentage of seventeen-year-olds performing at or above proficiency levels in multi-step mathematical problem solving and algebra has dropped from 7.3 to 6.9 percent. In Idaho in 2005, 40 percent of fourth graders tested proficient or above in mathematics achievement levels, ranking Idaho above 35 states in that same category. While 99 percent of public high school students in the U.S. in 2000 took a science course, only 62 percent took chemistry and 31 percent took physics. When you consider the students enrolled in advanced placement biology, chemistry and physics courses, these percentages drop significantly, to 16, 6 and 4 percent, respectively.Trends indicated by these numbers elicit a mixed response. Our younger students have improved (although 29 percent is less than a third of the student population) but the numbers for high school students are appallingly low. Education levels are soaring in other countries; we risk losing our competitive edge if we donâ??t chart a more challenging course with our K â?? 12 students, especially when it comes to math and science. I look forward to supporting new initiatives to reward teachers who seek advanced training and students who work toward degrees in math, science and engineering. We must expand the depth of U.S. talent in these highly-skilled and technical fields. The United States was recently ranked as the worldâ??s most innovative nation by a prominent European business school. "The U.S. is a top country in generating new ideas, adapting them quickly and profiting from them...The U.S. leads the second most innovative nation by almost a full point, putting it in a league of its own as far as global innovation is concernedâ?¦â?? (Incidentally, Boise was recently touted as the 8th most inventive city in the United States by the Wall Street Journal.) These rankings are no surpriseâ??weâ??ve inherited the strong education standards of our Founding Fathers. Math and science education must be one of our nationâ??s highest priorities if we are to remain leaders in innovation and economic strength.