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No simple solution on US math classes

WASHINGTON -- Confused by the latest ''good news-bad news" headlines about how US students compare in math with their peers in foreign lands? Wondering whether the math program at your child's school is teaching addition better than another program might?

You are not alone. Many parents are asking these questions and finding that, when it comes to math, the educational landscape in the United States can be maddeningly complicated.

Math programs that give students different ways to answer basic problems are beloved by some teachers, while others scoff and label the programs ''fuzzy math." Research reports are issued, then debunked by critics. And the long-running ''math wars," pitting traditionalists against reformers, are at high pitch.

Any large-scale meeting of the minds about the best way to teach the subject, educators and mathematicians say, is nowhere near -- in part because the country is so large and education decisions are locally driven.

''We have 50 states with 15,000 separate, independent school districts," said Gerald Kulm, a math professor and researcher at Texas A & M University. ''Our textbooks and other curriculum materials have to suit at least some majority of the people in those districts, and so things get complicated."

The release this month of international comparisons of math performance highlighted the confusion. One study showed that US eighth-graders made significant gains compared with their counterparts worldwide, climbing several places -- to 15th out of 45 countries -- since the international math rankings came out nine years ago.

But a recent study suggested that 15-year-olds in the United States lag behind their peers in most other leading industrialized nations in the ability to solve real-life math problems.

Some mathematicians and educators even disagree on whether international comparisons are valid. R. James Milgram, a mathematician at Stanford University, said yes; Jeremy Kilpatrick, a University of Georgia professor, said different cultures and educational systems skew the results.

There still may be hope of a truce in the math wars, according to Milgram and Kilpatrick, both of whom attended a conference designed to see whether common ground could be found.

Richard Schaar, a mathematician and senior vice president of Texas Instruments Inc., wooed the two scholars, plus three other figures in math education, to Washington early this month. Also attending was Wilfried Schmid, a professor at Harvard University who, like Milgram, criticizes ''reform" math programs as failing to teach children the fundamentals.

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