I worked on a story about Michael Milken many years ago, not long after the infamous junk-bond tycoon's release from prison. During the reporting phase, I observed him fulfilling his court-ordered community service by teaching a math clinic at a middle school in a low-income Los Angeles neighborhood.
The clinic was not at all what I had expected.
Milken, accompanied by his usual entourage, approached the job with the fervor of a motivational speaker. He knew the kids by name and took them through a series of math games, during which they used techniques they'd been taught to multiply and divide multiple-digit numbers quickly in their heads.
Milken's people tossed candy to winners, who jumped and whooped and exchanged high-fives. When the next problem was posed, hands shot up all over the room and some students nearly fell out of their chairs with excitement.
Not your typical math class.
Obviously, Milken's multiplication tricks and sugary incentives smacked of gimmickry. I've sometimes wondered if the enthusiasm I witnessed had any real staying power with those students. I think about it particularly after reading articles that crop up with dreary regularity bemoaning the dismal state of math education in the United States.
One widely cited study published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in late 2011, for example, found that 32% of U.S. students were proficient in math in the eighth grade, placing our nation 32nd among 65 industrialized countries in math skills.
Only one state, Massachusetts, edged the 50% mark in the study, while California's math-proficiency ratio was a distressing 24%.
Many observers have issued caveats to such findings. They point out that countries with the highest math scores — Korea, Finland, Switzerland and Japan, for instance — have smaller, more homogenous societies.
But our economic and ethnic diversity offers only partial explanation, experts say. It's generally believed that we have a broader problem in math education, and it's costing us dearly in economic development and employment opportunities.
According to at least one estimate, nearly 40% of college students who begin in math or science end up switching majors, while U.S. employers continue to hire more foreign workers to fill highly skilled, high-paid technology jobs.
Answers to our math problem have proved stubbornly elusive. Suggestions for improvement generally involve introducing math at an earlier age, improving teacher training and integrating math concepts throughout the curriculum.
Hopes are now riding on the new Common Core standards for K-12 education. Sponsored by the National Governors Assn. and the Council of Chief State School Officers, Common Core has been adopted by 45 states since 2010, and is in various stages of implementation in school districts across the country.
The new standards are meant to focus education on skills students will need to succeed in college and the workplace by improving analysis and critical thinking abilities and providing a practical context for knowledge. They're also intended to be used to create a national framework that will allow states to evaluate progress and share feedback.
Common Core is not without controversy. In the past month, a flurry of media reports has chronicled a growing backlash to the new standards in many states. The unease is shared by unlikely bedfellows, from conservative activists who fear a federal takeover of local education, to some union representatives who worry that Common Core assessments will be used to evaluate teachers. Some critics charge that the new standards are being rushed into practice without sufficient study.
Such reservations apparently aren't shared in Newport-Mesa, where Common Core is being embraced with great enthusiasm.
Plans are apace for the district to begin rolling out the new standards in the coming school year, and for full implementation in the 2014-15 school year. For math instruction and assessment, that will mean more hands-on activities and group interaction, and a greater focus on understanding concepts and applying those concepts to real-world problems, rather than rote memorization and abstract problem-solving.
Steve McLaughlin, Newport-Mesa's director of secondary curriculum and instruction, said an example of a middle-school math lesson would be to have students try to estimate the number of chickpeas it would take to fill a classroom. Such an exercise would require an understanding of space and measurements, he said, while also demonstrating that there might be more than one way to tackle a problem — just the type of creative thinking that tends to be discouraged under traditional teaching methods.
Will Common Core cure our math ills?
"I think absolutely our kids are going to learn math better," McLaughlin said. "Because we're focusing on critical thinking skills and deeper analysis rather than memorization, our kids will do better. The research shows it."
Efforts are now focused on training teachers and developing shared lesson plans.
"Ultimately, it comes down to our teachers and our commitment to bringing the resources to our teachers," McLaughlin said.
Of course, there's no guarantee that this grand experiment will produce the hoped-for results. But it's clear that what we've been doing isn't nearly good enough. It's time to try something new.
Bring on Common Core, and let's see if it can save us from becoming a nation of math dummies.
PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.