The Sad State of American Mathematics Education

As a) a civil engineering professor and b) a veteran of a school superintendent search, with all of the research that went with it, I can concur that American mathematics education leaves a lot to be desired of:

The statistics on U.S. math performance are grim. American eighth-graders ranked 25th out of 30 countries in mathematics achievement on the 2006 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which claims to assess application of the mathematical knowledge and skills needed in adult life through problem-solving test items. We do better on the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), whose test items are related to the content of school mathematics curricula. (Differences in participating countries aren’t significant.) But according to Mark Schneider, a former commissioner of education statistics at the Department of Education, the United States lags behind too many countries in “overall mathematics performance and in the performance of our best students.” And achievement gaps between different student groups within the United States, Schneider says, are “about the same size or even bigger than the gap between the United States and the top-performing countries in TIMSS.”

Although the general allergy to math and science is rooted in a culture that values socialisation above all else, there are two specific forces that are driving the problem:

1) The structure of teaching in public schools as enforced by the trade union.  As is the case with most trade unions, the ideal of the teachers is to have a system that bases pay solely on seniority and rank (teacher, administrator, etc.,) and not much of the latter.  Since people with math and science skills can make more outside of the education system, that means that it is more difficult to retain them in the face of a level educators’ pay structure, thus it is more difficult to attract qualified people into the system.  Some districts have addressed (or attempted to address) this issue but many have not.

2) The rather ridiculous belief that a strong mathematics curriculum–with the sequential march through elementary school into algebra and geometry–is somehow racist, sexist, homophobic and even religiously biased.  The article describes this as follows:

Some influential educators sought to dismiss the traditional curriculum altogether, viewing it as a white, Christian, heterosexual-male product that unjustly valorized rational, abstract, and categorical thinking over the associative, experience-based, and emotion-laden thinking supposedly more congenial to females and certain minorities.

Those trying to overthrow the traditional curriculum found mathematics a hard nut to crack, however, because of the sequential nature of its content through the grades and its relationship to high school chemistry and physics. Nevertheless, education faculty eventually figured out how to reimagine the mathematics curriculum, too, so that it could march under the banner of social justice. As Alan Schoenfeld, the lead author of the high school standards in the 1989 NCTM report, put it, “the traditional curriculum was a vehicle for . . . the perpetuation of privilege.” The new approach would change all that.

If we look at things from an international perspective rather than the pseudo-sophisticate one so common in our country, this is absurd.

To start with, even if we exclude Europe, we are still behind, especially if we factor in the per pupil expenditure.  Excluding Europe puts us in competition with countries which are for the most part non-white and non-Christian.  (Including Europe puts us in competition with countries that are non-Christian and rapidly becoming non-white.)  And connecting Christianity with “rational, abstract and categorical thinking,” although with basis in fact, will produce howls of derision from the New Atheists, who are themselves struggling with the simple fact that, on the whole, those who major in the hard sciences and mathematics do not see their religious involvement drop as a result of this education.  But I digress…

It’s also interesting to note that, especially in engineering, before 9/11 many of the top graduate students, academics and practicioners in the sciences came from the Third World, a vacuum created by the dislike of Caucasian worthies for the rigor of such fields.  (The change after 9/11 was caused by changes in student visa requirements.)

We need to face reality: we cannot prosper in a country without a strong scientific educational system, and we cannot have a strong scientific system without a strong mathematical one.  The consequence of this will be simple: the non-white (but not necessarily non-Christian) world will eat our lunch, and we will only have ourselves to blame for it.

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