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Americans Falling Behind on Math Literacy


Americans lag behind their international competition when it comes to math. That’s according to a new OECD report comparing developed countries’ literacy, numeracy and technological skill rates, which found that Americans ranked 21st out of 23 on the latter. Worse, the younger generation is losing ground compared to older generations. American boomers actually performed better than the global average in their age group on math and technology. The performance drops off quickly with younger cohorts. This has many observers worried that America could fall behind for good:

The results show that the U.S. has lost the edge it held over the rest of the industrial world over the course of baby boomers’ work lives, said Joseph Fuller, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School who studies competitiveness. “We had a lead and we blew it,” he said, adding that the generation of workers who have fallen behind their peers would have a difficult time catching up.

“We have a substantial percentage of the work force that does not have the basic aptitude to continue to learn and to make the most out of new technologies,” Mr. Fuller said. “That manifests itself in lower rates of productivity growth, and it’s productivity growth that drives real wage growth.”

This is sobering news. We’ve discussed how America is not producing enough STEM grads before, but this suggests that the problem goes much deeper.

Fortunately, America still has a lot going for it. Despite its poor showing on international comparisons, the US economy continues to perform well compared with much of the developed world. Much of this has to do with America’s relative openness to immigration and friendliness toward entrepreneurship and innovation. Many of the high performers from other countries opt to come to the US to pursue their dreams.

As long as we have these things going for us, other defects won’t weigh us down as heavily as they might. That’s certainly not a reason to rest on our laurels. Indeed this report should add some additional urgency to our efforts in education reform and in encouraging more students to move into STEM fields.

[Test image courtesy of Shutterstock]

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  • USNK2

    Perhaps ViaMeadia can find a way to challenge the replacement of the Three R’s (reading, writing, arithmetic) taught by a teacher who was allowed to speak that was the USA education standard before someone (certainly a bunch of someones from Columbia’s Teacher College)decided that student-centered team learning with a mostly silent teacher would be more effective.
    Students teaching each other is what NYC has been pushing for more than ten years.

    • Tom

      That may be how they do it in New York, but I’ve never seen it done that way.

  • Anthony

    “We have a substantial percentage of the work force that does not have the basic aptitude to continue to learn and to make the most out of new technologies….” Successful preparation for both STEM and societal technological change earnestly begins at K-8 level WRM. It is there where we impart numeracy skills but enhance and inspire talented math students. A sober look needs to focus on our delivery of fundamental arithmetic/mathematics at public/charter elementary schools.

    • Loader2000

      I tutored kids from poor families for two years. Most of the time, there was 1 of 3 reasons why the kids were doing poor in school.
      1. Parent don’t speak english and can’t help the kid with homework
      2. Single parent is too exhausted to help kid with homework
      3. Both parents work full time jobs, are exhausted when they come home from work and therefore don’t help their kid with homework.

      Another 4th reason are two parents who have time to help their kid but don’t because there lives are so messed up (often their own doing) that they don’t care. I didn’t see kids from these families much because only the parents who cared brought their kids to be tutored.

      Anyway, the bottom line is that if the slowed the flow of English speaking immigrants, got divorce rates down, and got at least one parent to only work part time, most kids, even poor kids, would to much better in school. Alternatively, you could somehow hire an army of volunteers to tutor these kids once or twice a week throughout the country.

      • Anthony

        You’re speaking too culture, economics, family (community) stress, and communitarianism; all important contributors and noted. And I agree subsidarity is a method where your contributions could be factored in…

    • lukelea

      Education Realist , written by an inner-city public school experiences, has some interesting observations and experiences to share. I think he is credible.

      • Anthony

        Again, thanks but subject matter has been extensively covered for more than 2 decades (if not more). Cognitively, academic competence and effectiveness begin in early grades; alas, other Quick Takes to read so let’s move on here also.

  • Anthony

    As usual, the devil is in the details. Observe the following.

    “The 2009 PISA test scores reveal that in American schools in which only a small percentage (no more than 10 percent) of the students receive free lunches or reduced-cost lunches, which are benefits provided to students from poor families, the PISA reading test scores are the highest in the world. But in the many American schools in which 75 percent or more of the students are from poor families, the scores are the second lowest among the 34 countries of the OECD; and the OECD includes such countries as Mexico, Turkey, Portugal, and Slovakia.”

    • Anthony

      Anyone looking at ways to improve math skills should take a good look at the Khan Academy. It offers math lessons ranging in difficulty from simple addition and subtraction to linear algebra.

      In a taped lecture about his academy, Sal Khan tells this story about a guy who wanted to go back to school to earn an engineering degree – he had previously majored in music performance – but he was afraid that he wouldn’t be able to handle the tough math load. At one point, he came across a difficult calculus topic and he couldn’t figure it out. So he watched Sal’s video 50 times and he finally got it. That shows just how powerful online learning can be! How many teachers, even highly paid tutors, would have the patience to teach the same topic fifty times in a row.

  • ColoComment

    Here’s a bit more distillation of the devilish details from Steve Sailer:

  • lukelea

    Nonsense. This is purely a function of under-performing Hispanics and African-Americans, who have always underperformed, even in their places of origin, and, based on the evidence so far, always will. Caucasions and Asians meanwhile outperfheir home countries (as do Hispanics and Afro-Americans for that matter), indicating that our schools are doing ok.

    These are the realities of human biodiversity. Get used to them. Appropriate education should be the name of the game. That and providing opportunities for every American ethnic group, no matter their average cognitive ability, to lead a good life.

    Not doing that is what we should feel guilty about. Articles like this one are a red herring, which has been dragged across our vision innumerable times. They are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

    WRM is great on the green scam. Why not pay attention to this one?

    • Anthony

      The real data does not square with your nonsense comment and my reply is not a category defense but an attempt at clarification. You are always internet surfing so access should be no problem. I respond only to bring focus to real meaning of competence and equality gaps in OECD’s assessment – for me Luke on this thread, I am done.

      • lukelea

        Sorry, I’ve been on vacation and away from the Internet. Here is my source.

        I found the author credible, the analysis convincing.

        • Anthony

          Thanks but if matter is important ought to seek experts in area. Now, let’s move on 2 days later.

    • Pete

      Thoughts like yours make Mr. Mead most uncomfortable.

  • Anthony

    In this instance details (PISA) don’t mitigate WRM’s overall point, wide swaths of public school children in America are demonstrating less and less mastery of math skills going forward.

    • Anthony

      I agree, I was just adding additional valuable information.

  • AnnSaltzafrazz

    Common Core will only make it worse. James Milgram, the only mathematician on the Common Core committees has said:

    “For example, by the end of fifth grade the material being covered in arithmetic and algebra in Core Standards is more than a year behind the early grade expectations in most high achieving countries. By the end of seventh grade Core Standards are roughly two years behind.”

    He thought the Common Core standards were so weak, he refused to sign off on them.

    He also said:

    “[Some organization involved in writing the Common Core] were mainly focused on things like making the standards as non-challenging as possible. Others were focused on making sure their favorite topics were present, and handled in the way they liked.”

    California had to slow down its math curriculum by a year to adopt the Common Core. (Though, much of that was a good idea. Not all kids can be ready for algebra in 8th grade, which was the old CA standard. CC makes it a 9th grade class.)

  • Dan King

    This article is completely wrong. Math is something computers can do much better than humans. The reason the new generation isn’t learning math anymore is because it isn’t as useful anymore.

    There are structural changes in the economy that render math and science less valuable in the marketplace than they have been in the past. I’ve posted about that here:

    • Anthony

      Is this really true? Yikes! Over the last few decades, getting a math focused education has been one of the few dependable ways to stand out in this bleak job market.

      • Kavanna

        Did anyone notice the VM story a little later about the teachers’ and other public employee unions in NYC about to get one of their own as mayor?

        Here is the root of a lot of the problem with schools. Once state and municipal employees organized and could strike, local politicians ceased to represent voters in a democratic sense. For 30-40 years or more, they have instead been representing public employees to the voters, rather than vice versa.

        The impact on schools has been profound, although it’s taken decades to work itself out. Teaching cannot be a profession under such conditions. Unions are about solidarity, not professionalism.

        The NYC mayoral election is turning out to be making explicit what has long been implicit in local government: the dictatorship of the unions. Voting is sham under such conditions, which is why turnout is so low.

    • Kavanna

      Yes, I think this idea that math skills are no longer important is nonsense. You won’t be able to understand what you computer is doing if you don’t know math and logical thinking. We could see that when I was teenager, as calculators were becoming common. It was even more obvious when I starting teaching college students later. You know, GIGO: garbage in, garbage out. If the human doesn’t understand what’s going on, having the computer do something wrong, just faster and more reliably, doesn’t help.

      In my high school, teachers dealt with it by not allowing calculators in math class, but allowing them in science and other non-math classes, a solution we all thought (including the students) was reasonable.

      Understanding the implications of GIGO is essential to understanding why climate models are not working, for example — the “global warming” hysteria is a reflection of declining interest in logic and science literacy.

      The last 20 years has seen an obvious decline in emphasis on logical and cause-and-effect thinking, objectivity, and learning to think for yourself. It’s been replaced by talking about your feelings, identity politics, and politicized crusades.

      And, no, it can’t be explained (or at least, all explained) by having more Hispanic and black students. Asian students here don’t do as well as Asian students there, for example. The US is losing this, among a number of attributes, its leadership as the most modern and dynamic society. Personally, I think it started to really go wrong when the Boomers took over institutions in the 1990s. The wreckage of Boomer narcissism and phony moral superiority is all around us. They have turned America into a Potemkin village, a hypocritical oligarchy and caste society.

      (Note: I’m a Boomer, although not by much.)

  • NoNewt

    Like many of our falling indicators (income, education levels, earning power), this is a demographic problem more than anything else. When the largest population driver – and particularly among children – is births by illegal / legal Hispanic migrants, 40%+ of whom have less than an 8th-grade education … well, geez, what can you expect?

    This is not “the system’s” failing, or America’s. It is the fact that we have a mid-sized Third World Central American country within our borders, and until it begins to shrink as a percentage of the population, we’ll continue seeing education, income and other indicators fall. Bienvenido en el Third World-o!

    • Kavanna

      Although I’m skeptical of such explanations, it would interesting to break all these trends down by region and state and compare to immigration patterns.

  • Mfposner

    I came to US from Japan when I was 17 years old. After I graduated with BS in chemical engineering from UCLA and MS in organic chemistry, I worked for 15 years as medicinal chemist at one of the largest pharmaceutical company in Southern California. What many Americans might not realize that many of science (physical science) majors in top American Universities have been educated in other countries. Many professors in graduate schools prefer foreign students from either Europe or Asia. More than half of my co-workers in R&D are foreign born. I have 2 kids in public elementary schools in Orange County, CA where there are only few minorities but I am horrified the way they teach math/science. I quit my job so that I could really help my kids’ education so that they could become scientist if they want to, otherwise they won’t stand chance. Without good math background, you can not compete in science. America will always do well due to large number of immigrants but it doesn’t mean that American born kids have equal opportunity for the field of science where good jobs are offered.

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