{Originally published at the Independence Institute in January 2004}

“Math is hard, let’s go shopping!”

When Mattel released a talking Barbie who offered that bit of teenage wisdom, public reaction was so furious they pulled her off the shelves. Mattel is still trying to recover from the PR disaster.

I assume they fired the guy who came up with that little gem. Not that it mattered much.

I have every confidence he’s enjoying a new career, designing math programs for American public schools. What else can I think about programs that encourage children to “shop” for the correct way to multiply? That ask kids what “color” they think math is, like it’s some sort of lip gloss? It’d be funny, if it weren’t so tragic.

It’s tragic because, in a modern global economy, mathematical literacy is essential. The most important product humanity produces in the 21st century is information. Working with information requires intellectual discipline and the ability to think abstractly. That’s what math is all about.

Unfortunately, other countries do a much better job of teaching math than we do, with potentially serious consequences. Why shouldn’t American firms contract out high-tech jobs to engineers from overseas, if that makes them more competitive?

Do you know any immigrants at your school? Ask Asian or European families what they think about math classes. Chances are their children placed into the most advanced math the district has to offer, yet are still having a very easy time.

My own experience as a teacher bears this out. I am proud to be on the faculty at one of the most selective colleges in America. My students are America’s best and brightest.

And yet, when I went to Russia on sabbatical, I couldn’t believe how good my students were at math. After two weeks of class, I had to redo all my lesson plans. I wound up covering more material in more detail than I had thought possible. It was a great experience, but a sobering indictment of American education.

Fortunately, what American students lack in fundamentals they make up in initiative and creativity. It’s a constant struggle to get Russian students to ‘think outside the box,” while my American classes are always abuzz with interesting ideas. Fix the math problems, and American students will do great things.

So how do we do that?

First we have to undo two decades’ worth of damage done by faddish mathematical programs. Here’s how you can tell if your school has one:

Your school emphasizes children “discovering” or “constructing” their own techniques for arithmetic. This is nice in theory, but most children lack the intellectual curiosity and focus to discover even basic arithmetic rules.

Besides, it took humanity a couple of millennia to develop the math we have now. Asking a roomful of 4th graders to start from scratch is an idea only an education professor could’ve come up with.

Your school de-emphasizes drills. “Boring” facts like multiplication tables and algebra formulas are no fun to teach, but they’re an essential part of developing mathematical fluency. If your child’s teacher doesn’t pay much attention to drills or thinks math facts aren’t important, be on the alert.

Your school encourages extensive, early calculator use.

Calculators are appropriate once mathematical fluency has been gained. But they’re crippling if introduced too soon, particularly in the early grades. There is a big difference between a child who knows *why* six times seven is fortytwo, and a child who merely pushes “6 X 7 =” on a calculator.

Fortunately, all is not lost. There are some terrific mathematics programs out there, ones that are both rigorous and fun. They’re ready and available to replace the silliness we have now, if only parents will demand them.

But it won’t be easy. We’ll have to do our part. We must support teachers who set high standards. We must support schools that hold students accountable. We must understand that self-esteem in mathematics is earned, not given. It comes from getting the right answer.

These and other “back to basics” ideas fly in the face of the modern educational establishment. They are in direct contradiction to incentives parents, teachers, and administrators face on a daily basis. Trying to solve this problem will be very, very hard.

But so what? Math is hard. Let’s go to work.