Americans Stink at Math (But We’re Much Better Now)

Elizabeth Green’s story for Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, “Why Do Americans Stink at Math?” is a must-read. Green illustrates our national struggles with math in numerous and at-times painful ways–in particular, read about how customers preferred McDonald’s 1/4-pound hamburger over A&W’s 1/3-pound patty because they thought it had more meat. Her piece is entertaining and seamlessly brings in education topics like teacher preparation, the structure of the school day, poorly aligned textbooks, Common Core, etc. It’s easy to forget she’s writing about math.

But for all the time Green spends documenting the ways Americans stink at math, she never mentions that we’ve gotten much better. That’s unfortunate, because the math results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) are one of the brightest spots in education. Between 1973 and 2012, the long-term trend scores of 9-year-olds rose 25 points. Due to Simpson’s Paradox, where the size of the group can mask aggregated data, the scores of white students, black students, and Hispanic students all gained more than the national average. Scores improved across all performance levels and achievement gaps narrowed. The same trends hold true for 13-year-olds. Across both ages and all groups of students, math achievement in 2012 was higher than it had ever been.

It’s worth noting that the scores for 17-year-olds have been flat overall, although the scores of white, black, and Hispanic students have all risen and achievement gaps have narrowed over time.  Still, the results of 9- and 13-year-olds would have been the most relevant for Green to include because her article mainly focuses on the basic math skills students learn in elementary grades.

No one knows for sure why math achievement has risen so rapidly, but it’s likely some combination of standards-based reforms, rising education expenditures, and falling class sizes. It may also be due to the curricular and instructional changes Green documents; I just wish she’d done a little more math.

–Chad Aldeman


3 Replies to “Americans Stink at Math (But We’re Much Better Now)”

  1. I have had the pleasure of working and studying with Mr. Takahashi and I know he would be disappointed with Chad’s entry. We need to stop focusing on assessment data and spend more time studying what is happening in actual classrooms. The common core curriculum is our best chance at meaningful education reform. Patience, effective teacher training and lesson study are the gold nuggets in Ms. Greens article. Let’s focus on those.

  2. I found that article to be correct in its position of “we” being poor in mathematical thinking. I have been teaching Math for 5 years and I felt as if I was looking into the mirror when the author was describing the silent classroom where “I, We, You” instruction was being given. The contributions of my previous teachers to my strategies are overwhelming. I have always wondered how the Japanese got to the position of being a math oriented society, and it is because teachers took it upon themselves to learn and start planting seeds of good mathematical thinking. As Nick said, we do get too overwhelmed in the assessment data and judge based on that. I did very well in my high school exit exams, but I cannot say I thought mathematically. It was not until college as I began that my understanding of concepts grew and now I am comfortable with teaching concepts but know that I have to continue to learn in order to get better at planting quality seed in the upcoming generation who will hopefully do the same when given the opportunity.

  3. I very much agree with Nick in that we need to spend much more time studying what is happening in the classrooms. Yes, math scores are increasing for 9 and 13 year olds, but we can do so much better. I know that I consider myself a lifelong learner, and need/want training in how to best implement the common core math standards. I have been teaching middle school math for a long time, and my students scores are always some of the highest in the state. However, I want my students to be able to understand the “why” of how the math is done, not just the equations and getting an answer. It is not just about the data like Nick stated. Students need to understand what they are doing.

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