Why Math Matters

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If one manages to graduate from high school without the rudiments of algebra, geometry and trigonometry, there are certain relatively high-paying careers probably off-limits for life — such as careers in architecture, chemistry, computer programming, engineering, medicine and certain technical fields. For example, one might meet all of the physical requirements to be a fighter pilot, but he’s grounded if he doesn’t have enough math to understand physics, aerodynamics and navigation. Mathematical ability helps provide the disciplined structure that helps people to think, speak and write more clearly. In general, mathematics is an excellent foundation and prerequisite for study in all areas of science and engineering. So where do U.S. youngsters stand in math?

Drs. Eric Hanushek and Paul Peterson, senior fellows at the Hoover Institution, looked at the performance of our youngsters compared with their counterparts in other nations, in their Newsweek article, “Why Can’t American Students Compete?” (Aug. 28, 2011), reprinted under the title “Math Matters” in the Hoover Digest (2012). In the latest international tests administered by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, only 32 percent of U.S. students ranked proficient in math — coming in between Portugal and Italy but far behind South Korea, Finland, Canada and the Netherlands. U.S. students couldn’t hold a finger to the 75 percent of Shanghai students who tested proficient.

What about our brightest? It turns out that only 7 percent of U.S. students perform at the advanced level in math. Forty-five percent of the students in Shanghai are advanced in math, compared with 20 percent in South Korea and Switzerland and 15 percent of students in Japan, Belgium, Finland, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Canada.

Hanushek and Peterson find one bright spot among our young people. That’s Asian-American students, 52 percent of whom perform at the proficient level or higher. Among white students, only 42 percent perform math at a proficient level. The math performance of black and Hispanic students is a disaster, with only 11 and 15 percent, respectively, performing math at the proficient level or higher.

The National Center for Education Statistics revealed some of the results of American innumeracy.

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  • kblink45

    I received yet another angry email from one of my student's parents. They wondered why their son's scores were declining. I responded that their son wasn't paying attention in class nor turning in quality work. I didn't hear back. I found this unusual. And then the student began working hard and paying attention. His grades improved. When I met his parents afterward, I asked them what had happened. They explained, in broken English, that they took away his xbox. I thanked them. In Chinese.

    • Jim_C

      If all education worked this way, no one would ever complain.

      Do you find it rare, or usual, that parents would notice the decline in scores and consult you?

  • Sage on the Stage

    I recently had an 8th grade student, who was studying percentage problems in his math class. He showed me a long list of word problems, and immediately took out his calculator. I explained that since he didn't understand the math very well, the calculator wasn't going to help. I persuaded him to give up his calculator; and he struggled to solve the problems. This is an area of concern–far too many mathematics teachers allow students to use calculators; when they don't understand the mathematics. Another disadvantage in using calculators as a crutch, is that the students don't learn how to do things step-by-step. They're looking for immediate answers; because that's what calculators give them.

  • rightslant

    "I told them that if they spent as much time practicing math as they did practicing jump shots, they’d be just as good at math as they were at basketball."

    But our society pays pro basketball players a lot more money than it pays mathematicians.

    What kids like to practice doing, accurately reflects the rewards our society hands out.

    We pay professional sports figures and Hollywood stars obscene amounts of money. And all the perks and fame that go with it. They earn far, far more than a scientist does. Their exploits are reported on every TV channel. How many scientists' accomplishments are reported on any TV channels except Discovery and PBS?

    And kids notice that.

    • intrcptr2

      True, very true. But like I ask kids when I'm subtituting, who signs the checks?
      I suppose I could also ask who lights the stadium or fixes the cameras?

      Those of us who are with the children tend to try pointing out the fallacy of expecting high stakes success. And I know many kids who have gotten the message. Sadly they tend to be the ones with actual parents at home. When a teacher demands work that requires study, it is the adults and role models that determine academic, and intellectual, success.

      It is up to us to make certain kids notice more than ESPN.

    • findalis

      The odds of any kid making it to the major leagues in any sport are astronomical. In fact they have better odds becoming brain surgeons than playing professional sports.

      • rightslant

        Well, the chances of any young person who goes into science ever winning a Nobel Prize are also very low. Many scientists grind away in relative obscurity, publishing their papers and perhaps doing some teaching.

        The point is that our society has role models of the kinds of pursuits that *could* lead to fame and fortune. Science isn't one of them. Even when the Nobel Prizes in science are announced, it's on the evening news just that one night and promptly forgotten.

        Whereas news about football and hockey are reported every single night in the sports part of the news show. Kids are getting the real message from TV that our society's priorities are sports, sex and entertainment. Not science and certainly not mathematics.

        • Gunner57

          I don't think basketball is stealing very many math majors from our culture.

  • rightslant

    One more point. These days, colleges and universities get the big bucks from funders of their sports teams. Even universities recognize that sports pays more than science does.

  • BLJ

    Math and geography are both subjects that I stress to my 3 kids. It is so true that if a student puts in the time and honest effort in this disciplines it will count. It really is up to the parents to stress this.

  • Sage on the Stage

    I have also noticed how students are now allowed to eat in class. They unashamedly munch on potato chips, pretzels, candy, etc., and drink soda in class. This contributes to a general atmosphere of permissiveness and malaise in American classrooms; and doesn't help anyone master math and science.

  • Ricardo

    For more than two decades I have taught principles of economics to first and second year college students. The subject of supply and demand can be more effectively taught using the graphing and algebra skills I learned in 9th grade back in 1972. It is depressing to witness how many students cannot understand basic algebra. I am not even talking about solving simultaneous equations. The students who can't cut it change their majors from business to <insert politically correct major here.> You'll probably a few of them in the future as part of the Occupy Wall Street gang…

  • Jim_C

    I wasn't bad at math in school. But aside from geometry and physics, I didn't particularly care for it.

    Now I appreciate it more, because I can see the applications. And I realize the only reason I preferred geometry and physics is because they corresponded to something tangible.

    So if kids can be shown ways in which math applies to real world situations, maybe they'd have more appreciation for it. I notice the way my kids learn math is a more "interrelated" curriculum than the way I did. I think that's great but maybe it's not going far enough.

    No question practice is important. I remember doing a lot of math homework, where I followed the rules and did the problems right but had no freaking idea what was going on. (Sine? Cosine?). Like I said, I did all right. But I don't think we need the joyless, frankly totalitarian way that Asian students are drilled math. We need to teach the relevance of math to appreciate the elegance of math. It's a way to look at the world. That's what will put us ahead, again.

    • New Yorker

      "So if kids can be shown ways in which math applies to real world situations, maybe they'd have more appreciation for it"

      No, math is an abstract science whicr requires abstract thinking, sometimes reinforced with prctical examples, and should be taught as such.

      The problem is not exactly starts with kids. It's the teachers and the way our education system is structured. Teachers lack competence and skills. Social engineering is what our schools have become good at, not math, not physics, not chemistry, not geography. History is taught as a "multicultural" kind of history, which is nonsense like all things which are "kind of something". This is a deeply entrenched societal problem with an implication that mediocrities, incompetents rule and will continue to rule and prosper, like mold, at the expense of quality and substance. In the end, if not reversed, it would bring a total deterioration and rot to our society.

      • intrcptr2

        I find I get more traction when I teach algebra as an art, because it is. Mathematics is abstract science. But higher order disciplines, like geometry and calculus are not, and the algebra required for success in those is more akin to tetris than chemistry.

        You are absolutely correct, though, about the teachers. As teachers, we get taught to eschew rote, drill, rigor, memorization, in favor of self-esteem, "higher-order" thinking, and tolerance. It boggles the mind, of those few of us who can in fact think. The majority of teachers are sumped from the bottom of the educational pond (The irony in my case is that my 2.0 resulted from taking too many classes, changing majors, and missing drop-add a few too many times. The Dean's List semester was pretty fun, what with those two 20-page, A-papers). The bulk of teachers simply do, as well as they can in a classroom, what they've been told to do by nitwit, ideologue academics.

        This article is proof of that baleful dynamic.

  • kongMing

    The talent still rests with the private enthusiasts who originate from free countries. Debian/CentOS and python rivals a lot of commercially available products if the corporations themselves do not adopt them. The top of the top go where they want and it's not North Korea.

  • kblink45

    I have taught mathematics, from pre-Algebra to calculus to statistics, in elementary, junior high, high school and at a university. I think the main problem with math education in America is that math teachers don't know what they are doing.

  • kblink45

    A few years ago, I attended a math education seminar taught by LiPing Ma, author of Knowing and Teaching Elementary Mathematics. She made the point that in China students are introduced to fractions BEFORE decimals. This, to me, seemed like a no-brainer. How can kids understand decimals unless they understand fractions? When I went back to my school and attempted to implement this simple change, I was hammered by parents and administrators. Parents were upset because their kids were suddenly struggling. For example, instead of having them learn division by rote, I wanted them to check their work. This wasn't possible unless we tossed out 'remainders.' I started out by asking them a simple question, "does 1r1, or one remainder one, equal 1r1, or one remainder one." They would laugh and tell me, "of course they are equal." But they are not. 1r1 is the solution to both 17/16 and 9/8, which are not equal. Thus it is very difficult to teach children how to check their solutions to division problems unless they understand fractions. Remainders were created by lazy teachers who care more about reaching artificial goals than comprehension. This is just one example.

  • kblink45

    But what did I get for my effort? Upset parents showed up pitchforks in hand and I was fired. Liping Ma has said that math mediocrity in America is a vicious cycle. Kids who don't understand math become teachers who don't understand math. Based on my experience, I would include parents in that equation.