By Pam Linn

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Computing my way to math literacy

Schools all over this country are failing our children and very little has been done to fix them. Government has tried and, by most accounts, failed dismally. And yet we’re told by most experts that the way to fix the economy is to fix education.

The past administration of George W. Bush managed to pass a program that promised way more than it delivered. No Child Left Behind has in fact left many children behind and blame is spread all over the map.

Experts, whoever they are, blame poor teachers; teachers blame the testing mandates of No Child Left Behind; state governments blame teachers’ unions that protect discouraged and burned-out teachers with tenure. There are exceptions, a few charter schools, but they are just that, exceptions.

All the while, tech-based businesses say they have jobs but no one qualified to fill them. Colleges say incoming students are unprepared for higher education. Remedial courses at the college level add to the appalling amount of debt owed by graduating students.

Well, someone has figured out how to teach math. His name is Salman Khan and his free program, Khan Academy, is available to all who struggle with numbers. His online course contains about 3,000 videos that cover every level of math. Because, he says, students carry gaps in understanding from one grade to another, his method precludes moving on when a child just doesn’t get it.

“They can’t pass a level until they can get 10 right out of 10 questions,” Khan says.

I had to try it. Google khanacademy and you get way too many choices, but patience gets you to a trial. I clicked on “exercises,” then “addition.” I solve the first 10 and am told to proceed to the next level of addition. I complete 10 correctly and am told I am proficient at this level and to choose another exercise. I click on a multiplication exercise, do the first five and am told to move on.

Okay, so I’m having fun but spending way too much time on stuff I can do. Since I was flummoxed by algebra, that’s where I’ll go next, but that’s for another day.

I should explain that my older sister and I grew up in a different era when girls were told they didn’t need to do math. As adults, both of us had inordinate difficulty with algebra and geometry, the only two courses required by most any college.

In order to understand how children live up (or down) to expectations, I’ll disclose that we have a much younger sister who was not told that girls didn’t do math. Today, she can teach calculus. Same gene pool, same environment, go figure.

In elementary school, one public, one parochial, both co-educational, we learned old math by rote: verbally and visually at the same time. The boys were better at it, but we now know that their brains, and certain parts of those brains, develop at a different rate. Hence the female affinity for words and the male ability to make sense of numbers about two years earlier than their sisters.

When I got to high school algebra, the world of education was ready for “new” math but I wasn’t. My sister, the teacher, says I wasn’t taught the principles of algebra, so I didn’t really understand it. A good memory allowed me to pass with a B grade, but nobody noticed that the whole thing went right over my head.

Many years later while getting my journalism degree, I signed up for remedial algebra. The instructor spoke in a rapid monotone. He would stop to catch his breath and ask if there were questions. I hadn’t understood enough to even ask a question. He said he would slow down when he got to the hard stuff. You mean this isn’t it? I dropped out.

Now, in my dotage, I feel compelled to try again. I’ve read a little book called “Overcoming Math Anxiety” and another called ”Fear of Math: How to get over it and get on with your life” by Claudia Zaslavsky.

Between these tools and the online resource, I think I can figure this out. Unlike my remedial algebra professor, the computer won’t let you go until you prove you’ve really got it. Wish me luck.