America's 15-year-olds ranked 25th in among nations in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development on the 2009 PISA test of international student achievement. That ranking, however, is being kind. The score for the average American high school freshmen was 117 points behind the average for their peers in Shanghai and 75 points behind 15-year-olds in Singapore, the top-rated nation outside of China in math.
Sadly, this isn't surprising. Thirty-six percent of high school seniors in 11 states scored Below Basic in math on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, the nation's exam of student achievement; one out of every three students couldn't answer such questions as "Which of the following expressions is NOT equivalent to (a + b) (x + y) ?" or perform Boolean Algebra. One out of every four eighth-graders in the entire country is mathematically illiterate.
If you wonder why American companies spend billions to buy H1-B visas for foreign talent, why India is now the leading outsourcing destination, or why the percentage of U.S. doctorates in engineering awarded to foreign students has increased from 47 percent to 57 percent between 1989 and 2009, the blame lies largely with the woeful math proficiency of American students. Far too many kids, no matter their racial or economic background, are flunking math in an age in which strong math and science skills are critical in even high-paying blue-collar jobs.
The low quality of math instruction in the nation's public schools, a decades-long battle over how math should be taught, and the general belief among educators that math is only important for some to learn are partly to blame for this problem. The biggest culprit of all lies with the leading symptom of the nation's educational crisis: Illiteracy. The inability to read becomes even more problematic for students in higher-level math work, which includes word problems and the ability to think through abstract concepts, as well as handle basic computations and spatial concepts.
Prompting the angst this time around are the latest PISA scores released this past November; the results came a month after Harvard University released a report that showed that just six percent of American 8th-graders would have performed math at advanced levels of proficiency on PISA and the Trends in International Math and Science Study. The woeful performances have once again sparked the battle between the nation's school reform movement and defenders of traditional public education -- as well as given birth to a string of inane articles over whether Chinese mothers (both in America and overseas) and their kids are more driven than their native American counterparts.
But the data -- along with news released this week by the U.S. Department of Education that two out of every five American high school seniors scored Below Basic on the science portion of NAEP-- is a sobering reminder that the nation's education problems are deeper than debates over "Tiger Moms."
Foreign-born scientists account for over 40 percent of all science and technology staffers on university campuses -- the leading centers for training future physicists and engineers -- double the percentage three decades ago, according to the National Science Foundation. Foreign-born engineers and scientists also account for a quarter of all college-educated employees in the tech field (based on 2003 data, the last period available). Half of all of America's foreign-born scientists and engineers are from India, China, the Philippines, South Korea and Taiwan, nations that are now major competitors with the United States in the global economy.
This dependence on foreign scientists -- an example of sorts of comparative advantage -- has proven to be beneficial to the world (including America) in terms of stemming wars and in bolstering global economic growth that stems poverty. But it is also a problem for America at a time when its national debt and high corporate tax rates hinder its competitive advantage.
Math is a critical element in even high-skilled blue-collar jobs; welders, for example, need trigonometry skills for sophisticated metal work. Young men and women with strong math skills will likely end up in jobs that have average annual salaries of $70,600 (or greater than the nation's median household income of $51,425). More importantly, math plays a critical role in understanding abstract concepts that often come up in business and economics. A student with a working understanding of, say, algebra, will also be able to understand why the Laffer Curve matters in discussions about tax cuts.
As with so much of America's education crisis, the problem lies with teaching and curriculum. The highly skilled math students who could become teachers aren't likely to join a profession in which performance-based pay is eschewed for degree- and seniority-based compensation; with prized skills, they earn more and gain greater job satisfaction in the tech sector. This leaves the nation's classrooms to be staffed by aspiring teachers who are not as likely to have strong competency in math and even less likely to be well trained to do so. Two out of 63 university school of education elementary math programs surveyed by the National Council of Teacher Quality met or exceeded standards for training math teachers; just 13 percent of 77 education schools surveyed by NCTQ two years ago had high quality math programs.
The fact that many teachers and principals think of math as something that only some kids can learn -- even though the rigors of reading instruction are just as difficult to master -- also hampers efforts at math instruction. Kindergarten teachers, for example, ignore the need to show kids that numbers represents quantities. As a result, kids fall behind early and often. As teaching guru Steve Peha points out in a recent piece on reforming math instruction, teachers seem to think that "reading… is an aptitude" while "math is an attitude."
Decades of battles over how math should be taught in school has also exacerbated the problem. During the 1960s, states embraced New Math -- which emphasized introducing kids to abstract concepts such as set theory (or collection of objects) -- forgetting that kids must first learn basic computations in order to achieve mastery. Since then, math traditionalists and more experimental teachers have battled over whether to move away from traditional arithmetic to such novel ideas as using real-life examples (like using marshmallows in instruction) in math instruction. Not even the effort to enact Common Core State Standards (and replace the wide array of math standards that exist across all 50 states with one nationalized curriculum) has fully avoided the math wars.
Even today, school districts use math textbooks and curricula of dubious quality. Only one out of 63 elementary math programs surveyed by the U.S. Department of Education has been rated as having "potentially positive" effects on student achievement; even that rating is based on just one study that met the agency's stringent research standards.
But solving the nation's math problem may require tackling the leading symptom of the nation's education crisis: Low levels of literacy and reading comprehension. The very skills involved in reading (including understanding abstract concepts) are also involved in more-complex mathematics including word problems and algebra. Poor readers tend to do poorly in math. But America's public schools are struggling as mightily in teaching kids reading as they are in arithmetic. One out of every three American fourth-graders read Below Basic proficiency on the 2009 NAEP.
As with reading, it will be up to parents, relatives and other adults to start their own math classes and teach kids multiplication and algebra themselves. And ask some tough questions of their schools about what they are being taught.
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