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The Ford Foundation announced Monday a $10 million project to boost math education for middle school children in poor communities.

Project QUASAR - Quantitative Understanding: Amplifying Student Achievement and Reasoning - aims to help schools come up with new approaches to enliven mathematics in grades four through eight.Ford Foundation president Franklin Thomas was scheduled to announce the project, among the largest ever undertaken by the foundation on behalf of public education, at a news conference Monday.

The goal is to help schools go beyond drills and rote memorization and get pupils to see real-life meaning in numbers. The project hopes to find ways to combine the teaching of basic skills with higher-order math reasoning and problem solving.

U.S. 13-year-olds ranked last in a recent comparison of math proficiency with youngsters in Canada, Ireland, Korea, Britain and Spain. Only 40 percent of U.S. youngsters showed proficiency in solving moderately difficult two-step math problems, while 78 percent of Koreans could do so.

The QUASAR project will be directed by the Learning Research and Development Center at the University of Pittsburgh, which was given a $2.5 million initial grant.

The center will spend the 1989-90 school year selecting the first five schools to participate in the project and training teachers and administrators. The project will begin in classrooms in the 1990-91 school year.

The center will select schools in economically and educationally disadvantaged communities based on their conduciveness to innovation. The project will expand to at least 10 other urban and rural schools in 1991-92.

A committee chaired by Westinghouse Electric Corp. chief executive John C. Marous and including business and labor leaders, educators and community advocates will advise the center on policy and help publish reports.

The center will use the balance of the grant funds to supply schools with staff, computers and other educational materials, and will distribute findings of the project to educators, policymakers, researchers and the public.