American Schools Have ALWAYS Scored Lower on Math Internationally!

Did you know that? I sure didn’t! 

Myth of Declining Schools

“…in the latest report by the wonderfully contrarian Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless, that the notion of America on the downward track is a myth. The data show that we have been mediocre all along, as far back as 1964. If anything, we have lately been showing some signs of improvement.” (emphasis mine)

Wow!  Who knew?  All this time we’ve been told crap like this from CNN Money on-line: Hey, Americans: you suck at math, so we are moving the call center to India!

“If you want to get a sense of what’s in store for the American workforce, just take a look at how our students match up against the rest of the world in math and science.”

The thing I find most disingenuous about this debate (besides the fact that the US has actually improved at math) is that many of the top performing countries only educate and test the richest kids.  That is WAY different from our concept in the US where ALL children are required to attend school until they are sixteen.  Our tests include pretty much all public school students with only the most disabled students being excluded.  I did find some data that shows kids who attend private schools do better on these standardized tests, but consider who these kids are: they come from families who can afford to pay private school tuition and many private schools are very selective in the first place.  To me, the comparisons with other countries aren’t equal to begin with, when the countries performing at the top only include the rich and highest performing students.

The “myth” of losing ground leads to corporate CEO’s complaining about the state of American education and using lower math scores to explain moving a factory to China. It also leads to the US Department of Education funding fact-finding commissions (because, you know those CEO’s can’t be blowing smoke!) where they identify the “source” of poor quality of math instruction.

Guess what the source is?

I’ll give you a minute…

Of course! Teachers!! 

Admittedly, I am not big on the “blame teachers game”. I have certainly had my share of run-ins with teachers over the usual collection of goofy things, but that doesn’t mean that teachers aren’t doing their best to educate all American kids.

The US has always been mediocre at math. That means my generation wasn’t any better at math than our kids. My parent’s generation wasn’t better either. This means support at home for math will not be super. I can’t even tell you how many parents I know who complain that they can’t help elementary students with math homework. I will admit that part of this is because kids argue that their teacher “told them to do it THIS way” and of course, that would be the ONLY way.  But part of it is that the parents, themselves, have a hard time seeing the pattern being taught because it looks different from the “drill and kill” method we grew up with.  

Next, consider teaching is largely a female profession, particularly in the lower grades where the foundation for future math competence is built.  I am female, and honestly, I had NO IDEA that I was good at math until I was an adult and in college.  Girls of my generation were routinely pushed away from math and science through unsupportive messaging and more direct “you don’t really need all that math!”, even in today’s world, the message that girls are terrible at math is loud and clear – just ask Larry Summers. I don’t buy that theory, but many of today’s teachers were hearing the same messages when they were students and being steered away from higher math classes, just like me.

So now Americans fund studies to “examine” the so-called decline in mathematics that demonstrate how our teachers don’t do a good job teaching math and the usual prescriptive “what can we do?”.

Seems like the first thing would be to admit that we were always barely OK at math when compared internationally and the next thing would be to set our improvement bar to increase our scores incrementally. Mostly, Americans need to admit that the comparison of ALL American kid’s average scores to the average of the rich and privileged of the Asian countries is a bad comparison to start with.

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3 responses to “American Schools Have ALWAYS Scored Lower on Math Internationally!

  1. YT March 10, 2011 at 12:15 pm

    I’ve heard schools in California have been usin’ texts on math from singapore since way back in ’99 (if I ain’t mistaken).

    • jjmtacoma March 10, 2011 at 1:41 pm

      Yes, there are many different approaches to math, but the point of the post is that comparing kids in the US where we educate everyone to only the most privileged kids in countries that don’t educate the poor. It isn’t a good comparison. Beating up the teachers who educate all the kids who arrive at school in the US isn’t fair either.

      Kids in the US aren’t getting worse at math, they are getting a little better, so why is it the dominant message in the media that we are getting worse?

      • YT March 23, 2011 at 1:41 pm

        Re: “Kids in the US aren’t getting worse at math, they are getting a little better, so why is it the dominant message in the media that we are getting worse?”

        Maybe a means to tell American companies to employ foreign nationals (e.g. India, China, etc.) since they’re s’pposedly more capable than Americans & 2x or even 3x cheaper to hire.

        My 2 cents (I might be grossly wrong).

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