Interesting front-page story in the WaPo today on a subject that has long been the bane of parents' existence: math. While the angle is different — this time parents are rising up against a new approach to math called "Investigations in Number, Data, and Space" — the anxiety and antipathy are quite old. Who remembers the frustrations four decades ago when parents were confronted with "New Math" (and who remembers the Tom Lehrer song about it)?
While this seemingly age-old challenge has a humorous side (c'mon, you just have to hear Tom Lehrer's song), it's also got a darker side. American students have been falling behind other nations in math and science for years now, and it's showing in the number of engineers and scientists we're producing. Why is that important? Engineering and science are the essence of innovation, and innovation is at the heart of wealth creation. Two years ago the National Association of Manufacturers highlighted this connection in a report called "U.S. Manufacturing Innovation at Risk." The report linked a strong, competitive manufacturing base to higher living standards in this country: Manufacturers pump more into R&D and consequently innovate more than other sectors, and that innovation leads to increased productivity, new products, and new and better paying jobs for Americans.
Only two years ago the Bush administration outlined an American Competitiveness Initiative, which committed about $6 billion in FY07 to research and education. The concept was solid, but we need to do much more. Education is still a function of state and local jurisdictions, but the federal government and private sector can form a partnership with teachers to search for solutions. Math and science are fundamental for "making things," and if our students keep falling further behind in these areas, America's manufacturing future will be in jeopardy.