Education: Least Popular Subject

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If the U.S. is ever to turn out the scientists and engineers it needs, it must first produce pupils with a knowledge of mathematics. And what is the status of the third R in the public schools today? After a study financed by the Carnegie Corp. of New York, the Educational Testing Service of Princeton, N.J. last week gave a dismal answer. Today's pupils, says E.T.S., "just don't like the stuff; they are afraid of it; they don't see any point to it ... Several other studies suggest that mathematics has the dubious honor of being the least popular subject in the curriculum."

In one survey of high-school seniors, investigators found that 12% had never taken any algebra or geometry, 26% had dropped mathematics after only one year, 30% had dropped it after two. Nor was this merely a matter of dullness or inability. Of the brightest 30%, four in ten never went beyond elementary arithmetic.

As a result of the high school's failure, says E.T.S., U.S. colleges spend an inordinate amount of time going over ground that should already have been covered. "One study shows that 62% of the colleges are in this position. An engineering school reports that 72% of its students entering in September 1955 were found so mathematically inadequate that they had to take a review of high-school mathematics before they could qualify for the regular freshman course."*

Long-Standing Hatred. The situation among U.S. teachers is almost as bad. In a survey of 211 prospective elementary teachers, 150 reported "a long-standing hatred of arithmetic." In an examination of 370 teacher candidates, half flubbed the question:

The height of a letter in a certain size of print is ¼ inch. If the following are the heights [in inches] of this letter in other sizes of print, which one is the next larger size?

a) 5/16 b) ½ c) 3/16 d) ⅜ e) 7/16.

On the basis of such evidence, says E.T.S., "it seems pretty clear that many elementary-school teachers have a hard time keeping even half a jump ahead of their pupils. Their salvation lies in memorized answers, rather than in any genuine understanding of arithmetical concepts. 'Elementary teachers, for the most part,' according to one observer who has taught them, 'are ignorant of the mathematical basis of arithmetic; high-school teachers . . . fall in this category also.' "

Learning to Detest. "This ignorance is scarcely surprising, for little knowledge of mathematics is expected, even officially, of prospective schoolteachers. In the majority of cases, an individual with ambition to teach in an elementary school can matriculate at a teachers college without showing any high-school mathematics on his record. He can graduate without studying any college mathematics. And in this condition, he can meet the requirements of most states for a certificate to teach arithmetic . . . Nearly one-third of the states will license [high school math] teachers even though they have had no college mathematics at all, and the average requirement for all states is only ten semester hours."

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