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Math remains a major hurdle for students


Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) said a well-trained workforce is important to retain businesses and to attract new ones to an area.

​If the U.S. is to remain competitive through a skilled workforce, it must develop better ways to help students learn math, according to a panel of federal officials.

On Wednesday, the National Journal magazine held a discussion with leading federal lawmakers as well as representatives from the U.S. Department of Education, for-profit colleges and industry. On the topic of education reform and job training, the participants agreed that colleges, K-12 and businesses must work together to develop better strategies to help students tackle math.

Rep. Virginia Foxx, (R-N.C.), chair of the House Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training, said there is too much focus in K-12 on “teaching to the test” and not enough individual evaluation and helping student understand the concepts of math. Students coast through math in high school and then are surprised that they cannot do college-level math when they enter a community college or university, she said.

Dual enrollment—which typically allows high school students to take college courses for which they earn high school and college credits—is one strategy that more K-12 schools could adapt to help students prepare for college-level work, said Foxx, a former community college president.

“We need to be doing a lot more of that,” she said.

‘Lying to students’

Tony Miller, deputy secretary and chief operations officer at the U.S. Department of Education, agreed that more emphasis is needed on preparing students for college-level work, noting students assume that since they passed math in high school that they can do college-level math.

“We’re lying to students and their parents,” he said, noting that up to 60 percent of students enrolling in college need remedial education.

Difficulty in math frequently prompts students to drop out of college, according to the panelists.

Foxx said K-12 needs to do a better job teaching basic math, but colleges still must do their part to help students already in college or returning students—such as displaced workers—who need to upgrade their skills, especially in math. Determining what kind of help students need in math and at what point they need assistance before they leave out of frustration is critical, she said.

Foxx also noted that colleges should focus more on creating short-term certificate programs to help students attain the skills for available jobs rather than on longer-term degree programs. She said the current federal job training system, which includes 27 programs across nine agencies and costs $1.8 billion annually, is not effective, repeating a common criticism by Republicans.

More input from businesses

Education and job training programs at public institutions should work more closely with business and industry to align required skills with academics, said Foxx, who cited successes with state-level programs in Utah and Texas. She added that for-profit colleges are serving businesses better than public colleges.

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), the ranking member of the Senate Subcommittee on Employment and Workplace Safety, agreed.

“They’ve met a need that public schools have not,” he said.

Isakson added that a well-trained workforce is key to retaining businesses and to attracting new ones to an area, citing Georgia's success in recruiting companies because of a well-trained workforce.

The event was sponsored by the University of Phoenix and Gallup.