February 12, 2007

O que se diz hoje de Portugal na Bloomberg.(12/Fev/2007)


Portugal's Math Problem: Failing Grades Equal Slower Growth

By Jim Silver

Feb. 12 (Bloomberg) -- Chipidea Microelectronica SA, a Lisbon-based semiconductor designer, is hiring most of its engineers in Belgium, Poland and China.

``The reason we opened engineering centers in other countries was to have access to trained personnel we couldn't find in this country,'' Chairman Jose Franca said last month in a speech at an awards ceremony for young scientists and engineers.

The shortage has Portugal hurrying to correct one of the root causes: the disastrous state of math education. Sixty-four percent of ninth-graders failed a standardized math test last year. In 2003, Portugal's math scores ranked ahead of only Greece, Turkey and Mexico in the 30-member Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

That's bad news for Portugal as it attempts to transform its economy from one that relies on low wages to attract employers to one in which educated workers increase productivity. The Bank of Portugal estimates that the economy grew 1.2 percent last year, the slowest in the EU.

``The generation of new firms is very slim in Portugal,'' said Nuno Crato, president of the Portuguese Mathematics Society and a professor at Lisbon's Higher Institute for Economy and Management. ``We don't have enough people trained, enough people knowledgeable in new technologies.''

Math proficiency dropped even as the government almost doubled spending on education to 6.1 billion euros ($7.9 billion) over the past decade. During that period Portugal installed computers in classrooms and reduced the average class size by more than 20 percent.

Training Teachers

The Education Ministry in 2005 increased training for primary-school math teachers and tightened job requirements to prevent those who failed math from teaching it.

In a country where the ministry traditionally keeps tight control over instruction, schools are being allowed to experiment with math curricula to find out what works best. The goal is to force schools to take responsibility for student performance, said Valter Lemos, secretary of state for education.

``We hope this year there will already be some results,'' he said. ``Our goal of getting to the average of the OECD results will take a few years.''

The results from the national test reinforced concerns that Portugal won't be able to catch up with the rest of Europe, after five years in which economic growth lagged behind.

Slowing Growth

Portugal's economy expanded less than 1 percent annually from 2002 through 2005, leaving it the poorest of the 15 countries that made up the EU before its 2005 expansion. In 2002, Portugal ranked 23rd among the 27 countries that are now EU member states in the number of patents granted per person.

``Math provides models of thinking and working that are important in professional life,'' said Joao Pedro da Ponte, chairman of the education department at Lisbon University's Science Faculty. ``It's an area that's important for the economy.''

Chipidea was founded in 1997 by three professors at the Technical University of Lisbon, providing jobs for their students. Now many of its workers come from abroad, Franca said.

Giving workers a better grounding in math would help them become more efficient, Ponte said. Productivity in Portugal was 59 percent of the average for the 15 EU members in 2003, ranking it last, behind Greece, the second-worst, at 75 percent.

Years of failure have had a snowball effect, so that many students now avoid math because they think it is too tough, said Jose da Silva Lopes, chairman of Montepio Geral, Portugal's sixth-biggest bank.

``There are many who go into easier specializations, such as psychology or sociology,'' he said.

`Tough Nut'

Companies are trying to stimulate interest in math.

Banco Espirito Santo SA, Portugal's third-biggest bank, teaches elementary-school students basic concepts about math and money. It also sponsors an annual 10,000-euro prize for an outstanding math teacher, and a national math competition for primary and secondary school students.

Caixa Geral de Depositos SA, Portugal's biggest bank, visited 68 schools last year with a traveling classroom -- a van equipped with Internet-access computers with math-related games.

``Math isn't such a tough nut to crack,'' said Susana Ferreira, a Caixa Geral spokeswoman. ``We want to get young people to think of math as something we deal with in everyday life.''

School Dropouts

Portugal is also battling a tradition in which most people didn't finish high school.

In 2002, only 10 percent of the country's 55- to 64-year- olds had a high school education, the lowest proportion in the OECD. Among 25- to-34-year-olds, the rate was almost 40 percent, still third-worst.

Augusto Pascoal, vice president of the Greater Lisbon Teachers Union and a retired math teacher, said the standard curriculum skips over some of the basics. He said many students can't handle algebra questions with a single unknown, because ``they haven't been prepared with simple questions such as `what times two is six?'''

Teresa Caissotti, a high school math teacher in the Lisbon suburb of Sintra, says media coverage of the test results has focused attention on the issue.

``I think something's changing,'' she said. ``Now it's not just education experts thinking about this issue.''

To contact the reporter on this story: Jim Silver in Lisbon at jsilver@bloomberg.net

Last Updated: February 11, 2007 19:00 EST

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