If the U.S. “stinks” at math, what’s the fix?

Students cheering at MoMath's Second Annual Suffolk County Middle School Math Tournament  (Image MoMath)

Students cheering at MoMath’s Second Annual Suffolk County Middle School Math Tournament (Image: MoMath used by permission)

Earlier this week the most emailed story from the New York Times asked “Why do Americans stink at math?

It’s a worthwhile article, if long. But, in general terms, it’s true: America’s math skills need work.

Numbers that indicate mediocrity at best come from sources like the Programme for International Assessment, or PISA. Their 2012 assessment of math competency for 15 year-olds (in 65 countries) ranks Canada in 13th and the U.S. in 36th place.

The problem is fairly visible but solutions remain elusive.

Many fault how math is taught, including Glen Whitney, a key founder of the National Museum of Mathematics. Located in New York City, “MoMath” is the only one of its kind in North America – in contrast to Germany, which has several math museums. Other countries with math museums include Japan, South Korea, Italy, Spain, Japan and Hungary. (Of course, many museums and similar institutions in the U.S. include material that is very much related to math.)

Interviewed by Molly Petrilla for Smart Planet, Whitney expounded on ways math gets misunderstood, or improperly presented, in the U.S.:

In the roughly 2,000 hours of math instruction you get in traditional K-12 school, you get a non-representative view of what mathematics as a human enterprise is like. You learn that every problem has a specific method, and it’s just a matter of matching up the problem to the method. If you follow that recipe, you will get the one correct answer. There’s no sense of creativity or imagination or beauty or exploration. I think exploration is at the core of what mathematics is as an enterprise.

There’s also this impression that math is utterly linear. If you reach an obstacle — whether it’s something you find difficult or just don’t like — under the linear model of math, you’re done. You can’t proceed. Math must not be for you. That image is wrong. Mathematics is actually extremely bushy. There are so many different areas, and there’s no need for people to feel that if they don’t like one area, then they don’t like math at all.

In a separate NYT Op-ed, math teacher Jordan Ellenberg says a good place to start is to make engaging games out of various math concepts.

For all the excitement around using math creatively, some would counter that better grounding in plain old fundamentals can’t hurt either. As different generations are exposed to new math, newer math or (most recently) common core math, an immense source of frustration comes when parents cannot understand content well enough to help kids with homework. NCPR’s David Sommerstein blogged about this in 2012 — see if you can handle his daughter’s first grade math work.

Of course, complaints that the young leave school poorly educated are not confined to low math skills. This is part of the bigger problem of what should be taught, how does that happen best and who’s going to make any of that happen?

But sticking to math, do you see a problem? How would you fix it?

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19 Comments on “If the U.S. “stinks” at math, what’s the fix?”

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  1. Pete Klein says:

    Maybe the fix is to go back to before the smart people decided math needed fixing.
    Problem with education in general is there are too many people whose jobs depend upon fixing what never need fixing.

  2. Mr. Kent says:

    Exactly. Pete Klein is right. Fact: The highest scores on Regents exams and SAT scores were in the 1960s. Then ” new math” became the ” thing” and ever since scores have come down. The SAT had to be re centered ( meaning the old score of 1,000 was replaced by a score of 900 and 100 “free” points were added to your score simply by signing the test). This happened in the late 1990s. And that is act.

    Now, that SAT was messed with again and nonsense writing ( it can be totally meaningless but if it meets the rubric you get points for it) and fluff were added.

    Go back to what was working. Use the same books.

  3. stillin says:

    Here’s what’s NOT the fix…expensive, “math workshops” for math teachers…incentive pay to go to them…”golden trophies” for those who did so well and golden apples for those who teach it. The education system…re:taxes paid by everyone, goes into the bottomless pit of these kind of things. We know what DOESN’T work, and we throw money at it like it grows on tree. Then, SURPRISE! Nobody does any better, usually worse..hey , there’s a workshop coming up , you get a stipend to go to it,,,it’s counting lego’s with kids….this is the key for math with children! Yea right. Here’s where the education system is right now. When kids “come in” for their class, they have often been taught to “clap” if they are listening…so instead of talking with them, you are sometimes asked to “clap” to them. Get real. We have a spoken language for a reason. The clapping, the ‘math workshops” the “incentive stipends” chalk it all up to increasing chowderhead mentality. duh.

  4. oa says:

    Stillin–I’m deducting points for crimes against syntax and punctuation here, including ham-handed use of ellipses and quotation marks.

  5. thinking says:

    Would the commentators entertain the idea of reading the NY Times article referenced above with an openness to and engagement with its content?

  6. The Original Larry says:

    The Japanese teacher has a passion for his subject and for teaching that I think is sadly lacking in his American counterparts. In all fairness to American teachers, their jobs seem to have devolved into babysitting, test prep and mostly pointless paperwork. Freeing them to TEACH THEIR SUBJECT might reawaken a passion for something other than their summer vacation. If teachers went after that freedom with the same zeal with which they protect their pension and health benefits, we might have something.

  7. Pete Klein says:

    The problem with the Times article is the same problem that most Times articles have. It is excessively wordy and is constructed in such a way as to reach a preordained conclusion. In effect, if you argue with the Times, you are branded as stupid.
    The Times thinks very highly of itself. In many ways, it believes it speaks with authority (ex cathedra) given to it by God.

  8. Mr. Kent says:

    The whole ” We have a problem and a shortage of math/science people in our society and the public school is to blame ” is a false premise.

    Would commentators who rely on a newspaper reporters article as a main discussion point on the subject matter at hand consider reading some serious inquiry into the subject matter before making assumptions? I would highly suggest research done over an extensive period of time by ” The Atlantic ” as a starting point.

    The National Bureau of Economic Research, the RAND Corporation, and the Urban Institute all came to the same conclusion. ” All have concluded that U.S. higher education produces far more science and engineering graduates annually than there are S&E job openings—the only disagreement is whether it is 100 percent or 200 percent more. ”

    It must follow, therefore, that the public schools are providing more than enough qualified students in those areas.

    Also concluded after serious inquiry was this fact: ” unemployment among scientists and engineers is higher than in other professions such as physicians, dentists, lawyers, and registered nurses, and surprisingly high unemployment rates prevail for recent graduates even in fields with alleged serious “shortages” such as engineering (7.0 percent), computer science (7.8 percent) and information systems (11.7 percent). ”

    Now, if you want to have a discussion about how to raise Joe the Plumber to be math score, then fine. Have at it. But America is not falling behind the rest of the world regarding science and math as it relates to a functional society. Quite the opposite.

    “Far from offering expanding attractive career opportunities, it seems that many, but not all, science and engineering careers are headed in the opposite direction: unstable careers, slow-growing wages, and high risk of jobs moving offshore or being filled by temporary workers from abroad.”

    Outsourcing. Conclusion. ” Every high school graduate should be competent in science and mathematics—essential to success in almost any 21st century occupation and to informed citizenship as well.”

    “But there is a big disconnect between this broad educational imperative and the numerically limited scope of the science and engineering workforce. ”

    The “problem” is not what some make it out to be. Not even close. Let me know the first time MIT or Cal Tech or Clarkson for that matter , make the claim they just cannot fill their freshmen class with enough qualified students. They all say the same thing ” best freshmen class ever!”

    This is what inquiry looks like in a report, not the NY Times.


  9. Lucy Martin says:

    High achieving students and top level schools do very well in the U.S. and Canada. (Probably always will.)

    That post was actually prompted by the lad behind the till who gave me too much change a few days after I read that NYT article. An example of slippage in basic math.

    When I explained the error and gave the extra $5 bill back he said “That’s a switch. Usually I give back too little, not too much.”

    Making change is not rocket science. And yet for far too many folks these days it seems to be just that! And yes, that was but one incident or anecdotal experience. It’s common enough though, to signal problems with numerical literacy.

  10. Mr. Kent says:

    Ms. Martin, your experience sounds more like a business hiring problem. If a plumbing company hires an employee to work for them and that employee cannot perform the function of the job assigned to them, then would you say we have a problem with competent plumbers in this country? Maybe you would, but I would argue that if you paid wages that were attractive to prospective applicants, then you would get a better pool of applicants to choose from.

    When I check out of any store, the register tells the cashier how much change I should get. Maybe that is the root of the “problem” and also why basic arithmetic has become less valued in our society. Same reason why digital clocks have made it so a lot of younger people struggle telling time from the “old” hand clock or why writing skills have been replaced by keyboarding. Perhaps the problem lies in the fact schools try to make all students into mathematicians. Understand, Math and basic arithmetic ( numerical skills) are two totally different animals. I say, do not go down the math road until you have reasonably mastered arithmetic.

    Regardless, all I need to know is how to use a computer to solve most of my real life math problems. Rightly or wrongly, that is the way it is, and I say that as someone who enjoyed and feel competent in math and the world of numbers. Last week I measured the area of the project I was working on, put those numbers in to a calculator found on the internet , added the depth I desired, the material I needed and Voila! I knew exactly how many yards of top soil and crushed gravel to order.

    So many variables in the whole issue. In New York City alone, there are over 90 different languages spoken by students. We test them all. To compare a Country and public school system like ours to that in Japan or Germany or Switzerland is starting from an equation that is not equal to begin with.

  11. Mervel says:

    I think we need a little humility as a country on this issue ( and many others). Many other countries are doing a better job providing math education, lets simply look at what they are doing and adopt some of it.

  12. Mervel says:

    Also as Mr. Kent shows, there is a lot of accepted wisdom surrounding education that simply is not true.

    I have children in middle and high school right now. Looking at their work; I don’t really buy that we are far worse off academically than we were 40 years ago.

    I do think we have a major problem with high school graduation and a major problem with a group of young people in this country that currently have no real future. In New York, a relatively wealthy state, one out of every four young people do not graduate from high school. You can’t function in a modern economy with that level of education.

  13. Mervel says:

    Sorry to go on, but the final point is that we are not getting worse in my opinion, the rest of the world is just getting much better.

    But there is something going on with math there is no doubt about it; I think we have always been poor at math, the issue is we must do better in a global economy.

  14. Mr. Kent says:

    All good and valid points Mervel. As late as the 60s and much of the 70s that one in four you speak of could still find gainful employment. Factories, and other decent paying jobs. You could make $10 an hour in the seventies just sweeping the floors at J&L Steel or working in the talc mines. Enough to get a person by on and often times a better wage than those other three in four were getting. Not true anymore and that is a big difference.

    I just hate this constant dribble from all corners that somehow ” American students are lazy and dumb just like their teachers.”….too many of these “kids” work hard and are bright and eager to learn as are many of their teachers.

  15. Mr. Kent says:

    OK, not sorry to go on: What’s the fix? ” If it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it.”

    You say wha? Well, for a whole lot of kids they are doing fine. They get it. Sooo, ” Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water.” Stop changing how math is taught to everyone because some do not get it. simple as that.

    TRACK STUDENTS IN MATH FROM DAY ONE. Yes, grouping by ability, progress, whatever you want to call it. And having a teacher’s aid standing behind a student in a class that very demanding will not make that student the same as the student who gets it right away. BE HONEST! with parents. No, not everyone can grow up to be a rocket scientist if you just give them enough time. Groups that are not doing well, then try different methods. Stop sending students who are/were doing just fine down experimental rabbit holes.

  16. Zeke says:

    There is more than enough money spent on public pre-K-12 education. If they eliminated the people drawing an”education paycheck” who have nothing to do with students and used that money to provide varied opportunities rather than a one size fits all education scheme I think we’d all feel better about the tax dollars being spent on public education.

  17. mervel says:

    Very interesting article in this week’s New Yorker about what happens when you go insane over testing progress using false measures of success and the Atlanta school districts massive cheating scandal.

    I think the key on funding zeke is as you say; putting money in the classroom and minimizing all of the money spent outside of the classroom, where a good portion of school budgets are spent today.

  18. We have a sociopolitical culture that rejects fact-based evidence. It’s no surprise we stink at math. I’m sure some nutjob will be insisting that we teach “2+2 = 4 is just a theory.”

  19. I think math education in practice is too theoretical. Yes, there needs to be a theoretical basis in the beginning. But if you want to really engage students and – more importantly – have them retain the information, then it needs to be taught in a way that they feel will be relevant to their ordinary lives.

    I took advanced math in high school and got a BS in math in college. But since I didn’t pursue a math related career, I use none of it. I think there’s very little math beyond maybe 9th grade (at least as per the curriculum when I was in school) that I’ve used in my daily life. Basic arithmetic to balance my checkbook, percentages, a little algebra but no calculus, virtually no trig. I remember how excited I was at one summer job at a park where I was able to use the Pythagorean Theorem to figure out approximately where second base on a softball field was supposed to go. That was about the only time I’ve used it. In 7th grade, we spent a period of time learning how to calculate the square root by hand. Talk about mind-numbing. It’s amazing it didn’t kill my love for numbers.

    When I briefly taught math, I tried to use real-life type examples (sports, carpentry, etc) that might not only interest my students in the short-term but show them that there is a use for it beyond the standardized test.

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