Math Education: The US is Doing a Better Job than Most People Think

11 Mar

From .Copyright © 2013 Michael H. McGee. All rights reserved. Please feel free to share or re-post all or part non-commercially, hopefully with attribution.

Recent test scores show that the United States ranks 24th out of 29 countries in the math literacy of its 15-year-old students, according to The Data Research and Development Center (DRDC) at the University of Chicago.

This is a somewhat misleading statistic, since all of the countries ranking higher than the United States on the skills testing are countries with much smaller populations. In addition, all of the countries ranking above the US have relatively homogeneous populations and more closely prescribed school system offerings. This chart below shows the names of the countries and their rankings on the scale:


The population of the United States is 313 million. This population is an absolute melting pot and the schooling is largely controlled at the local level, leading to varying degrees of skills in different parts of the country. Japan is the next largest, with 120 million citizens. They have one of the world’s most uniformly homogeneous populaces, and national systems of education which are demonstrably superior to the US. Nevertheless, the total number of individual students excelling in math in Japan is less than a third of the number in the US.

Germany has a population of about 80 million, France 60 million and South Korea 50 million. Each of these significantly smaller countries has a relatively homogeneous population, and each probably has a significantly better school system than the US. The United Kingdom, population 63 million, is not included in the list, yet probably has a better overall school system than the US.

Some of the countries which are “ahead” of the US in this survey are Iceland, which has a total population of 325,000 homogeneous souls; and Luxembourg, which has a total population of 520,000 homogeneous souls. It is not statistically accurate to compare scores in these countries with those of nations with 50 to 313 million citizens.

Thus we have Japan, Germany, France, the United Kingdom and South Korea as countries which have meaningful populations and exceed the US in math literacy. This would put the US as number 6 on a list of larger countries which have good math literacy. Though please notice that only OECD countries were included in the survey. We don’t know where China, Russia, India or Brazil would place on the scale.

Here in the United States we have a significantly larger group of school children. There are about 64 million students in grades one through 12. Of these, 72 percent aged 12 to 17 were judged academically “on track” for their age (enrolled in school at or above grade level). This comes to about 46 million US students who are now or will be in the future, by some measures on track. These 46 million United States “on track” students, if considered as a separate nation, would be the 28th largest country in the world, out of 196 countries.

Almost all schools in the US are controlled locally, and the quality can vary even from county to county, or between public and private schools. In any event, US school children have much more freedom, even in middle and high school, to select the types of education which interest them. I’m a prime example. From middle school on, I shied away from math every chance I got. I was allowed the freedom to indulge in my irrational math anxiety. This meant that even though I’m a certified genius, when I was fifteen I would have flunked any standardized math test I’d been given. As an adult I’ve learned a lot about mathematics, though most of my adult math skills were acquired by engaging in practical situations where math was a component.

So, using the statistical skills I’ve acquired over the years, I’m prepared to say that the simple statistic of the United States being 24th in math skills is inaccurate and misleading. First, a close look at the numbers on the chart shows that the country which is number one scored 544 and the US scored 483, and the variations in sample sizes are beyond extreme. This is not a statistically significant variation in scores, which means that all these countries are roughly within the same range of skills. Second, it’s certain that the US has a lot more math whizzes, in absolute numbers, than any of the twenty-three other countries which are listed as being ahead of us.

So there’s really no reason for US educators to panic about their ability to teach and their students’ ability to learn math literacy. The statistics in the above study should not be a reason to punish American educators or make them feel less than adequate!

Even so, it is essential that the United States educational system should give more dedicated emphasis to teaching math literacy. Ours is a country which has grown great on the strength of our Science, Technology, Engineering and Math skills. Mathematics is a fundamental part of all of the other STEM skills, so it deserves the absolutely highest level of attention by our educators, at all times and in all places.

Even though I’m focusing on my country, the United States, it goes without saying that other countries should also commit to increasing math and science skills. Even with the inherent bias in the survey, the 23 countries ahead of the US in the survey are all doing a very good job of focusing on math education. They need to maintain and increase their intense dedication to math teaching, though, never letting this ultimate goal falter for even a moment.

There are, however, 196 countries in the world. This means that 172 countries may be slightly or far behind the US in their commitment to math education. Each of these countries needs its leadership to give a great deal of attention to education in math and the sciences. It’s the ticket to success in our interconnected world; which is mostly interconnected by progress in science. Mathematical literacy is the key element in scientific and technological progress.

To be more specific, the United States must increase its commitment to the teaching of math and science as a part of a core curriculum, beginning in the seventh grade. We want more of our youth to pursue serious scientific or technical careers. Science and technology is the future. If we don’t succeed in encouraging scientific and technical careers, there will be no one to fill the new jobs of the twenty-first century. Thus science and technical education is crucial, and math is the fundamental ground of being for all of the sciences.

Bob Hoffman, a retired teacher and a fellow blogger, at encourages us to see the teaching of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) as a core curriculum starting in the ninth grade. I would have that core curriculum start in the seventh grade, with specialized STEM teachers taking students for at least an hour a day in the seventh and eighth grade, out of classrooms where now only one teacher handles the entire daily curriculum.

Bob Hoffman says he believes we must redirect the STEM emphasis in the high school curriculum (I say from 7th grade on) away from the “college-degree pipeline” into a more flexible approach that uses additional dimensions of “Basic Workplace Skill Sets”, and “Applied Career Preparation Pathways”. These would slice up the core content information and knowledge needed for each of the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics subject areas into additional levels of complexity, and into a variety of workplace applications.

A ladder of “Basic Workplace Skill Sets,” Hoffman says, would clearly identify the methods, practices, and “habits of mind” needed for entry into several technical occupational levels. These six levels would be progressive in the complexity of the content topics, and in the mathematics preparation needed for each.

Those who show aptitude for the “Master/ Professional”, “Engineer”, “Scientist” and “Mathematician” skill levels would of course, throughout high school, be funneled into the more complex structured “college pipeline” curriculum requiring extensive effort.

And then there are the people like me: definitely college-bound, not interested in a technical career, and showing up with difficulties in mathematics. We should be funneled into a rigorous FOUR YEAR staged-difficulty mathematical learning process, where we can proceed at our own pace to acquire the highest levels of math we are capable of obtaining.

I wish someone had applied more pressure to me during my high school years to obtain maximum proficiency in math: and perhaps at least one teacher might have taken the time to explain to me why this proficiency was important in whatever field of learning I chose. (I’m not blaming my teachers; I’m just saying….) I was a hard case, yet I did respect learning and scholarship. I loved science even then, yet my personal rebellion kept me from seeing the fundamental and direct relationship between science and math.

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