Why are we behind in math? Here are some answers.


My kids (1st and 4th grade) do at least one and two hours of math at school correspondingly and then at least 15 min as part of their homework. Probably the same as I did in their age. We go to science museums (and these museums are always delightfully packed, by the way). Kids enjoy math computer games that I buy for them. Some of the children's shows they watch on TV have math infused in them in very creative and engaging way. I keep hearing from neighbors and friends how their older kids spend hours on their math homework. Our kids' class sizes in US are, on average, smaller than in other countries my relatives or friends live. 40 students per teacher is not an unusual ratio there. In addition, we, as a country, have enormous knowledge capacity and amazing new ways of sharing it. Given all this, it sounds absolutely unbelievable that we are far from leading in something as basic as math.

Are we certain there is no mistake? Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study from 2007 compared 4th graders in 36 countries and 8th graders in 48 countries. The average score of US 4th graders was somewhere between 9th and 12th place, the average score of 8th graders in-between 6th and 11th place. See the tables. Not at the tail, but not at the head either. Other studies are unfortunately placing us further down. The Broad Education Foundation states that American students rank 25th in math compared to students in 30 industrialized countries. Our top math students rank 25th out of 30 countries when compared with top students elsewhere in the world. By the end of 8th grade, U.S. students are two years behind in the math being studied by peers in other countries.

Most of us are genuinely surprised and troubled to hear this statistics and of course we all have been wondering why is that happening and what we can do to lead in math. Just in time, last Friday's Science Magazine editorial written by math professors and education experts provides some answers. All the authors are members of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSS) Mathematics working group.

They write that US math performance is “compromised by a lack of focus and coherence in the curricula. Higher-performing countries teach central topics more coherently and in greater depth.” Therefore, they recommend selecting fewer grade-appropriate topics but devoting more time to study each of them in depth. The authors also mention a lack of national standards and curricula for mathematics. Each of the US states is currently free to select what should be taught and how to assess whether students have learned it. As a result, most of math workbooks are created as restaurant menus. Each containing five times more material than international school books, because states are frequently choosing different topics to cover. Editorial authors also mention that state math standards currently tell teachers what to cover, but do not define and measure how well kids lean it. A common assessment system may be of help. As the problem seems to be well-defined by the educators and scientists now, it should be possible to address it. Correct! Using the curricula of the high-performing countries, and taking into account research findings, the committee consisting of teachers, mathematicians, statisticians, math educators and cognitive scientists devised a set of new core standards. These new Common Core State Standards have been released last month with the hopes that they will be adapted by all states making the knowledge and skills expectations uniform across the country. In addition to this, the editorial mentions that consortia of states are already organizing a common assessment system for student achievement. And they helpfully finish with a statement that “the promise of an improved education system is thrilling.”

Top image from Flickr


Try something different from TheMathMom:
While educators are working on adopting new standards and curricula, you can work home front and share joy of math with your kids through these great card tricks.

36 comments:

  1. Your personal experience (and that of your neighbors) is not even remotely representative of the national averages. NHS is one of the top public high schools in the state, representing what schools and parents COULD be doing to improve our national performance.

    Consider also the culture and attitudes in those countries that lead the list. If we wish to emulate their success, we need to change far more than just our textbooks.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I absolutely agree with you. Regarding our attitude change, here is an essay I wrote a month ago that compares our math and sports attitudes:
    Are we sure it's OK to be smart?

    ReplyDelete
  3. What? I thought "New Math" was the answer...

    I love your site, and great article btw...

    Found you by way of the S.Strogatz NYT blog comments.

    ReplyDelete
  4. The reason the United States is so far behind other nations in all areas is because most of those nations ahead of the US test their students around eighth grade. Those that pass, go on to high school, those that don't pass go to trade school. In the US, EVERYONE goes to high school. So why is this important? When we do state assessments, every child tests, this includes the mentally handicapped, learning and behaviorial disordered and the students who are uninterested verses the best of those students of the rest of the world. Basically the whole premise of testing they way it is done is different. Unfortunately, most people are simply unaware of this simple reason. I'm sure that if we had a similar system, where only the very best were allowed to go on to high school, we to would be in the top three or so in the world. . .

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