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Math + test = trouble for US economy
December 6, 2004 5:02 PM   Subscribe

Math + test = trouble for US economy For a nation committed to preparing students for 21st century jobs, the results of the first-of-its-kind study of how well teenagers can apply math skills to real-life problems is sobering. American 15-year-olds rank well below those in most other industrialized countries in mathematics literacy and problem solving, according to a survey released Monday
posted by Postroad (86 comments total)

 
Well, ya know, the USA did its stint as "best" and "at the top" and all that. Now it's time to test out the waters at the other end of the scale.

Think of the USA as a rebellious teenager and it all sort of makes sense.
posted by five fresh fish at 5:06 PM on December 6, 2004


We still lead the world in Script-Kiddie (tm) production, right?
posted by b1tr0t at 5:13 PM on December 6, 2004


American 15-year-olds rank well below those in most other industrialized countries in mathematics literacy and problem solving

When you have a country where parents can sue a school to change grades, and schools have to cater to the the whims of those holding the purse strings because they don't have the funding they need, you get a generation of kids who have no skills.

You reap what you sow.
posted by FunkyHelix at 5:18 PM on December 6, 2004


Yay!
posted by dash_slot- at 5:30 PM on December 6, 2004


This, the shrinking funds for the NIH, the ballooning deficit... the election of a moron as president.../shudders and walks away/
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 5:35 PM on December 6, 2004


If I had stayed in public education or if I ever go back, this is actually the #1 thing I'd like to pursue understanding and perhaps even fixing. Seeing the unnatural fear many of my students had of word problems made me want to drop everything else and spend 2-3 months on this. If I hadn't been a student teacher and required to stick with other's lesson plans, I probably would have.

Then again, one of the reasons I did not become a full-time real teacher is that I could see that I was probably going to be required to stick to someone else's plans even once I became a real boy. If nothing else, state education board curricula... and I'm not surprised we get the results we do, because that's generally focused on a breadth-first tour of the mathematical menagerie, rather than any kind of generalized problem solving skills. Word problems are conveniently chosen to coincide with whatever portion of the menagerie you're visiting.

And that, I think, may be the crux of the trouble. You start with the subject matter, and then try to fit real world problems under the low-resolution grid. Better by far, I think, would be to start with a problem, and then develop necessary tools to solve it.

Of course, you'd still have to address the trouble with the fact that math/tech skills do not gain you social respect.

And worse, we are letting employers remove economic incentive. We're outsourcing tech, and bringing in wage-competetive help via H1-B visas, rather than paying those who can do it here. So let's get this straight: no social esteem for math/science, falling economic rewards -- how are we going to regain any kind of lead again?

I mentioned this on slashdot today, and becoming a suit or tradesman seems like a much wiser choice than any kind of knowledge worker.
posted by weston at 5:35 PM on December 6, 2004


Fuzzy Math!
posted by alms at 5:36 PM on December 6, 2004


I find it ironic that despite the poor test scores, how much innovative software and technology comes out of America.

I mentioned this on slashdot today, and becoming a suit or tradesman seems like a much wiser choice than any kind of knowledge worker.

Yeah I've read stories of physicists taking up plumbing because there's more money in it.
posted by bobo123 at 5:45 PM on December 6, 2004


Folks, it's not just the kids.

I taught college-level computer courses for a while, and I was astounded at how unprepared some of my adult students (read: aged 25 and up) were for what should have been elementary-level mathematics.

Try teaching the concept of binary math to someone who has difficulty grasping simple decimal addition. It's about as frustrating a situation as I have ever found myself in.

And I wish I knew the solution, I'd be a rich man.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 6:02 PM on December 6, 2004


On a related note, Thomas Friedman discusses the flagging number of American scientists and engineers.

Here is a similar essay from the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs.
posted by Tullius at 6:05 PM on December 6, 2004


makes sense if you think about the way even basic arithmetic is taught in american schools. how many "plug-n-chug" problem worksheets did you do as a kid? how ofter are we taught that it's more important to know the "formula" for solving a problem than why it works that way.

Liping Ma wrote an interesting book comparing the way different industrialized nations taught math in grade school levels.

Think about it this way: Do you still consider it "borrowing" when you do subtraction? Or how you were told you "couldn't subtract a larger number from a smaller one?" Few people realize how this fundamental contradiction affects the students when they encounter more ambigious problems or negative numbers.

It has less to do with money than it does our own desires to see our children succeed. If you do not take an active role in your child's education they will not benefit as fully as they could be. Of course we all are worker harder (not smarter) to make money to "have stuff" but who really wins in the end? Is it better for your child (or the parent) to have the latest and greatest toys, or maybe just spend a little more time with their parents.

You can't trust someone just because they have a degree. Just because someone is a teacher does not mean they know the best ways to educate and enlighten. The parent has to make sure that their child is receiving the education the parent wants for them.

Oh, and even if you had a billion dollar school budget (per school) you'd just attract people looking to make money by teaching. Think about all the total lame-asses you knew making bank during the dot.boom. They were in the right place, at the right time even though they had nowhere near the right qualifications.

Sorry folks, it's time to expend a little energy if we want to fix this. Throwing dollars at it ain't gonna fix it.
posted by raygun21 at 6:06 PM on December 6, 2004 [1 favorite]


Well, ya know, the USA did its stint as "best" and "at the top" and all that.

Um...says who? Yet another example of the bodgy logic that assumes that economic and military might (themselves partly a function of population size) somehow entail supremacy or even general excellence in other areas.

(Unless, of course, you were being ironic)
posted by UbuRoivas at 6:08 PM on December 6, 2004


also from fareed zakaria last week :D
The U.S. economy has powered ahead in large part because of the amazing productivity of America's science and technology. Yet that research is now done largely by foreign students. The National Science Board (NSB) documented this reality last year, finding that 38 percent of doctorate holders in America's science and engineering work force are foreign-born. Foreigners make up more than half the students enrolled in science and engineering programs. The dirty little secret about America's scientific edge is that it's largely produced by foreigners and immigrants.

Americans don't do science anymore. The NSB put out another report this year that showed the United States now ranks 17th (among nations surveyed) in the proportion of college students majoring in science and engineering. In 1975 the United States ranked third. The recent decline in foreign applications is having a direct effect on science programs. Three years ago there were 385 computer-science majors at MIT. Today there are 240. The trend is similar at Stanford, Carnegie Mellon and the University of California, Berkeley.
cheers!
posted by kliuless at 6:10 PM on December 6, 2004


I could go on and on about what is wrong with the education system in the US. But it comes down to the parents, who they vote for and their expectations they put on their kids (or the lack thereof).

Bah. Everything is so damn interconnected, making a coherent thought on the subject is hard. Parents don't spend enough time with their kids, but they don't because the gap between what they make and the cost of living is so damn wide, they have to put the hours in. It's the whole idea of: if you're seeing cracks, check the foundation. If there are cracks in the education, look to the families. If the families are failing, look to the... so on and so forth.

We are producing a nation of idiots.
posted by FunkyHelix at 6:12 PM on December 6, 2004


Just because someone is a teacher does not mean they know the best ways to educate and enlighten. The parent has to make sure that their child is receiving the education the parent wants for them.

I think you're right to a certain degree, raygun, but while there may be a parent here and there that has a good metric by which to judge his or her child's education, most don't. Frankly, I think the scarier part of the equation would be more parental involvement at this point. Just because someone is a parent does not mean they know what a good education is.
posted by ontic at 6:17 PM on December 6, 2004


Oh, and even if you had a billion dollar school budget (per school) you'd just attract people looking to make money by teaching.

I like to think that that might make the teaching market more competitive, and I might have gone to a public high school where all the teachers could speak standard English. It'd be a start.
posted by rustcellar at 6:18 PM on December 6, 2004


Yeah, well, let's see how well foreign students would do at finessing the math section of the SAT so they can get into a U.S. college.
posted by Joey Michaels at 6:25 PM on December 6, 2004


More evidence in the form of full and part reports...mind you, I doubt the UK has too much to cheer about - we seem to be strangely absent from the comparison tables. Did the UK 'opt out'? We are in the OECD, so I don't see why the figures from the UK are missing.

Many EU countries do well, as does Switzerland, but there is a pattern of southern European countries doing worse than Northern. Wonder what that's about?

Oh, yeah -

Yay! again.

I don't mind the US falling behind, it shows that wealth doesn't make ya smart.
posted by dash_slot- at 6:33 PM on December 6, 2004


I find it amusing that the highest score that Canada achieved was in "uncertainty".
posted by djfiander at 7:09 PM on December 6, 2004


Three years ago there were 385 computer-science majors at MIT. Today there are 240. The trend is similar at Stanford, Carnegie Mellon and the University of California, Berkeley.

Do you think that there might be anything that happened in the U.S. economy between 2001 and 2004 that may have discouraged students from going into computer science? MIT's overall enrollment hasn't decreased in these three years, and they're all studying science and technology, so it strikes me that this particular statistic might be a bit of a red herring.

Not that I disagree with Zakaria's general point, but to take the number of people going into computer science during a bust in the software industry as an indication of a general trend in science and technology isn't very sound statistical reasoning.
posted by mr_roboto at 7:17 PM on December 6, 2004


You know, this may be embarrassing, but the bottom line is that it's been the case for decades now, and we still own you.
So...
posted by ParisParamus at 7:21 PM on December 6, 2004


Clearly, more money for schools is the best solution.
posted by trharlan at 7:32 PM on December 6, 2004


No Child Left Behind is essentially a dumbing down of the public educational system to the lowest common denominator. Our local high school planned to cancel most of its Advanced Placement schedule for the coming year, until the squeaky wheel parents insisted the school follow through on promises previously made to incoming seniors (like my son) to offer AP classes if they took certain prerequisite classes. NCLB is basically an incentive for a school to put all their money on the marginal kids that might not pass the standardized test. This money often comes from diverting funding from gifted & talented, honors, and Advanced Placement programs. Basically, the smart kids are getting shafted.

Thank you, Mr. President; you are turning us into an easily duped nation of idiots.
posted by Doohickie at 7:32 PM on December 6, 2004


MORE money? How about less and competent teachers, and gutting the teachers unions. And less TV.
posted by ParisParamus at 7:34 PM on December 6, 2004


Before I read the many more comments, I want to add a little of what I've experienced with regard to math. First, I want to say that I dearly love mathematics. I think it's one of the most beautiful pieces in the work that is our understanding of the universe. I think it has tremendous power to solve practical, everyday problems, as well as the obvious application to the more complex and abstract.

Now, though, I'll say this. I have hated math. I blame my teachers for this, because I love to learn, and I love the subject. What could possibly go wrong? I'll tell you - systemic failure to teach. I have never, ever had a good experience with learning math in a classroom setting. It starts with multiplication tables taught in lower grades. Our teacher decided that it should be a contest. We would each get a sheet of gridpaper with the edges labelled 1 through 20. You had to write the product at the intersection. Only, everyone would have to finish in a set amount of time. If at least one person didn't finish, the test would be repeated again. Until everyone finished, the entire class could not go to lunch.

Now, I'm not a fucking developmental-psychiatrist, but I can tell you, this is enormous pressure for kids of this age. I dreaded this class from the minute I left it til the next day when it started all over again. I may be biased, since I was religiously last in finishing the table, and simply couldn't go any faster. I still couldn't tell you, right now, what 17x17 is without working it out on paper.

It just gets worse from there. My beginning algebra teacher was a nightmare. Similar race-against-time tests, loser-hurts-all kind of thing. Never encouraging alternative methods. Public access television taught me the 11's multiplication trick (add the two digits of the number, stick it in between the two digits. i.e. 11x23 = 253), but this made my teacher irate, for whatever godforsaken reason.

It continued on through highschool, where my pre-calculus teacher was the softball coach, just filling in until they could find a real teacher. Then on into college, where asking questions is literally begging for torture. As a consequence, I've learned all I can possibly learn on my own, whenever I get the chance. In the Calculus finals of the previous few semesters, I passed all conceptual problems with great ease, while others had no idea. I just cannot for the life of me simplify any equations, since that requires fundamental algebra skills lurking in those pieces of painful memory.

My solutions are half-pages long, since everything is fully expanded. It's all valid, if you take the time to read it, but you can imagine how that gets graded. That's the crux of it all. Damn you if you know how it works, I want the fucking answer, is the general sense I got from all of my teachers.

Never, ever question the validity of the problemset. Typos are intentional, and meant as "little tricks," if you ever bring it to the teacher's attention. I literally got points taken off of an otherwise perfect assignment due to my going to the teacher to point out a typo in her problem layout that forced the answer to be incalculable. With a slight adjustment, the solution worked out perfectly. I notified her, and submitted the obviously-correct work, with her typo taken into consideration. This was unacceptable, since she had been using this problem for a decade, and refused to accept responsibility for hundereds of students' not knowing why their answers were illogical.

God, I wish I knew these simplest of mathematical operations, you can't imagine how often it would help. It's like having a symphony composed in your head, but having no idea how a piano operates. I'm sorry this is so long. I just, I really feel sorry for people who don't try as hard as I have to learn this stuff on their own, because of how profoundly beautiful it all is.
posted by odinsdream at 7:44 PM on December 6, 2004


"math" isn't the US' only education problem, grammar is as well.

It's maths, because it's a contraction of mathematics.
posted by wilful at 7:49 PM on December 6, 2004


how about less money and competent teachers, and gutting the teachers unions.

Well, yes, of course. Less money always makes things better. We don't need to attract better teachers. We need to imprison them....break their spirit. That's the trick....the paradigm has shifted.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 7:52 PM on December 6, 2004


Take a look at NYC. They spend over $10K per student, and the results are, on average disgraceful. It's negligent, failed parents that are the route of much, most of the failings of the US education system. The balance, lots of shitty teachers. Certainly there are exceptions, but shitty teachers are WAY too common.

I have a problem with the very notion of the full-time, career teacher, especially beyond elementary school. I just don't think the idea of being a high school, or even junior high school teacher lends itself to attracting the brightest and most creative people. Too many teachers are just mediocre, uninspiring drones.
posted by ParisParamus at 8:09 PM on December 6, 2004


PS: the US welcomes and absorbs a number of immigrants every year that would make Jean-Marie Le Pen explode. That certainly impacts upon academic standards.

Again, we still control the world, with no change visible on the horizon.
posted by ParisParamus at 8:21 PM on December 6, 2004


Shouldn't it be "math's" if it is a contraction?
posted by stp123 at 8:24 PM on December 6, 2004


wilful - a contraction of mathematics really ought to be math's, following one of the standard rules for apostrophe usage.

on preview: d'oh!
posted by UbuRoivas at 8:25 PM on December 6, 2004


It's maths, because it's a contraction of mathematics.

Shouldn't that be "math's?"
posted by stet at 8:26 PM on December 6, 2004


Today, we learned that it is impossible to out-anal MetaFilter.
posted by kindall at 8:27 PM on December 6, 2004


It's maths, because it's a contraction of mathematics.

Wouldn't that make it math's? Anyway, do you say econs? Gee, those cross-Atlantic language differences are a blast.

Math in America is just taught poorly. I found out I was good at it when I had a good teacher. But the years before that . . . I have fond memories of consistently getting the worst grade in multiplication because we were tested on speed tests (how many can you finish in a minute?), and I actually did the addition. You know, because punishing someone for understanding what multiplication means, as opposed to just memorizing answers, makes total sense.

On preview: Damn I type slowly.
posted by dame at 8:31 PM on December 6, 2004


Thanks, Paris.

/mediocre uninspiring drone

I won't argue with you that there are a lot of shitty teachers out there. I'd love to see what happened if teachers' wages were high enough to bring about real market forces in hiring decisions. Right now, though, the only two types of applicants you get are those who were born to teach and those who were drawn to teaching because the college major is easy and the benefits are pretty good.

On the other hand, I think you'll be vastly disappointed with the results if you gut the teachers' unions. The unions have many purposes, but one of the most underappreciated is as a brake against the tendency of local and state politicians to use schools as a political football. You have no idea how incoherent policy and curriculum can get when politicians decide to meddle - which is happening all over the place now in response to the terror engendered by NCLB. The unions, in a strange twist, are actually conservative creatures (if not politically on the national level). They are a check and balance against the constant change in the political winds.

I'm off topic now, though. Back on topic, this situation is going to get worse, not better. You can't machine score higher-order thinking skills. Therefore, as the pressure mounts to pass tests, higher order skills get progressively shorter shrift. Every revision of curriculum I've seen in the past five years has been in direction of more emphasis on that which is testable. It's horrifying, a train wreck in slow motion. I'm not going down that path in my own classroom practice, but the pressure is mounting from all sides.
posted by Chanther at 8:31 PM on December 6, 2004


Apparently (according to PP) i am owned and controlled by americans.

i guess that means i must not be Iraqi. ;-)
posted by UbuRoivas at 8:33 PM on December 6, 2004


odinsdream - wow, you have my sympathies. The getting harassed at college bit startles me a little, but I guess I'm just clueless.

otoh, knowing what 12x6+3x2 saves me the trouble of finding scrap paper to figure it out on. But I agree that the inanities of poor teaching has damaged a generation.

As for money for education - like everything else, it's not so much how much money, but how it's allocated. I know people who've stopped gradeschool teaching because the cost/reward simply wasn't worth it. Giving administrators a 400% raise (or even a fireing followed my a hiring) isn't going to solve the problem. Giving teachers and subsitutes more money is great, but it'll be years before young people see teaching as a viable career, enter the post-secondary education system, get teaching experience, and *then* challenge for the right to teach children. (yeah, I don't have a solution)
posted by PurplePorpoise at 8:57 PM on December 6, 2004


From a Texas view; I sincerely believe the state is purposely producing a cannon fodder level of average student.
Schools with 26% pass rates on the state exams will proudly have in them many vice-principals that will loudly proclaim their positions in academia. Never mind the fact that the halls are still half full after the final bell rings (Texas has a one minute warning bell between classes, as if it matters).
Many of these great administrators have doctorates, and many years experience in administration. Very few days in actual classes however. But they are of high positions, and must be respected, if not adored.
Schools get paid for having students in them, a few hundred dollars per day per student. To "kick" out a student is to lose money. It is a business. Ninety percent of the resources are spent on wasting time on the 10 percent of students that are tomorrows welfare and prison candidates.
Some schools have other students that are "special". They might for example, choose to expose theirselves to other students any chance they get. These "special" students remain in the general population and get their own escort. They feel very special to receive such attention, and I am sure we do like to pay the salary for the adult escort and accompaning overhead of administrative burden for such very "special" children. I think that in this way, some schools actually encourage "special" children to continue to excel.
You do NOT have to graduate high school to teach in Texas. Many districts have specific standards, but that remains the state standard.
These comments bear little on Math ed, however they do reflect a great deal on the fact that our schools are failing in the teaching of social skills (gag, liberal words!) and how to be citizens. Citizens does not refer to drones... opportunities abound for normal (or abnormal) activities such as sports, clubs, academics, politics, and development of ones own self.
Our schools spend a LOT of money and time on "special" students.
Substitute teach for a day or 60 or more. Most districts require only a Saturday seminar to do so. Experience our education system first person. Please do not blame the teachers because the office is a revolving door of triplicate paperwork as an excuse for classroom management and discipline.
posted by buzzman at 8:59 PM on December 6, 2004


It's about as frustrating a situation as I have ever found myself in.

i got yer 'frustratin' right here, fancy cipherin' utah snob!
posted by quonsar at 8:59 PM on December 6, 2004


The contraction of "mathematics" has got to be "maths". Otherwise, following another standard rule of apostrophe usage, you get the possessive: "math's inherent logic..."
posted by casarkos at 9:19 PM on December 6, 2004


Hey, I just thought of something: maybe we *will* get better math/science teachers if we stop rewarding those who go into industry from technical backgrounds! As wages for technical professionals plumet due to outsourcing and allowing more professional immigrants into the country, schoolteacher salaries will actually start to look quite competetive -- and so our brightest minds will go there! There's hope yet!
posted by weston at 9:25 PM on December 6, 2004


I don't think there is a single solution to America's education problem. At least on metafilter so many seem to be quick to blame parents, but I think that only scratches the surface. Americans abhor intellectualism; we are taught from a very early age that math and science are “geeky” subjects. The only things that are really important are football and getting a good job. How often have you been involved in a family discussion about sports? How many times your family has engaged in a discussion about current topics in math or science (cloning and stem cells don’t count!)? If your family is anything like mine the former exceeds the latter by orders of magnitude. Many people simply opt out of any conversation that involves math or science (we don’t want to appear to be too geeky, and god forbid we make ourselves look stupid). By not reinforcing any sort of academic pursuit in the social realm we devalue it in academic settings. How many high school math lectures have opened with, “you are never really going to use this but …” It becomes a vicious cycle, teachers do not teach concepts that won’t be used, and people don’t use concepts that aren’t taugh.
posted by kscottz at 9:29 PM on December 6, 2004


The contraction of "mathematics" has got to be "maths". Otherwise, following another standard rule of apostrophe usage, you get the possessive: "math's inherent logic..."
Uh, no...you'd get "math's' inherit logic..."

and following your "has got to" it would be:
"maths's inherit logic" or "maths' inherit logic"

but that might be confusing. and this is the problem with teaching in general...too much rigidity to make things easier on the teacher and the people who check answers. it's easier to have a computer process an optical answer sheet with explicit, discrete answers than having to pay people who actually understand the underlying principles to correct and maybe even comment on why a student was wrong, instead of offering a red "X" or something.

interestingly enough, one of the best solutions to paying teachers better vs. not was that every teacher should be paid according to what their past students make. you'd be damn sure that teachers would produce incredibly capable students with earning potential.

well, it's funny anyway.
posted by raygun21 at 9:35 PM on December 6, 2004


Call me grammar illiterate, but what is so wrong with shortening 'mathematics' to 'math'? Last I checked 'mathematics' is not the plural of 'mathematic' - so why should we be adding the 's' onto the end of a simply shortened version of the word?
posted by vernondalhart at 9:41 PM on December 6, 2004


I always hear "math" as meaning simple arithmetic & basic algebra, and "maths" as involving things like calculus and statistics and other estorica.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:47 PM on December 6, 2004


addressing tullius' links to the friedman and foreign affairs articles -

mr_roboto is, i think, right. having seen the .com crash, many students at tech schools are likely to hesitate before heading towards an electrical engineering/comp sci degree. here's an article from the MIT newspaper, the tech, regarding the decrease in ee/cs students. note that a decrease in management students is also observed, but interest in other majors is relatively constant. note also that, according to the website of the admissions office, only 7% of undergraduate students are international students. while there has certainly been a decline in the number of foreign students, those students did not account for all or most of the decline in ee/cs majors.

it's fair enough - probably not incorrect at all, really - to argue that americans are adverse to science, and that the decline in foreign students doesn't help our universities. however, given the publications coming out of MIT, stanford, berkley, and so on, trends at these schools do not really support arguments about the decline of science in america. on the contrary, such schools remain respected not just nationally but internationally as hotbeds of innovative and vital research. using the economy-related decline in undergraduate ee/cs majors to suggest that those schools _are_ undergoing some sort of swift degeneration due to the lack of foreign students is more than a little disingenuous.
posted by ubersturm at 9:55 PM on December 6, 2004


I think everybody has been on the wrong track. In america, "math" is apparently not a contraction, but an acronym: "merely average [on] the histogram".
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:57 PM on December 6, 2004


As a 15-year-old public high school student, I don't doubt us being more supider* than the Europeans for a second.

*(Irony intended)
posted by anarcation at 11:19 PM on December 6, 2004


And despite this, the best universities in the world are, with few exceptions, all in the United States.
posted by oaf at 11:24 PM on December 6, 2004


Parents don't spend enough time with their kids, but they don't because the gap between what they make and the cost of living is so damn wide

I'm sorry, but this is bullshit. You work yourself to the bone? I don't care. Turn the tv off and spend some time with your kids. Many parents can do it. Having money is nice, but the lack of it is no excuse to shirk one's parental responsibilities.

fwiw, I like the idea of NCLB, because what were doing before wasn't working and giving in to teacher's unions isn't going to help. Now, the idea that we aren't appropriately funding NCLB, is another matter entirely.
posted by owillis at 11:32 PM on December 6, 2004


And despite this, the best universities in the world are, with few exceptions, all in the United States.
posted by oaf at 11:24 PM PST on December 6


What? Or, more correctly, wtf? You must be joking.
posted by jokeefe at 11:49 PM on December 6, 2004


And despite this, the best universities in the world are, with few exceptions, all in the United States.
posted by oaf at 11:24 PM PST on December 6


According to Shanghai Jiao Tong University, 17 of the top 20 are in the USA.

The Times Higher Education Supplement (PDF) says 11 of the top 20.

This doesn't prove or disprove the argument about the general standard of US education, though. All it proves is that the cream of US universities are very, very good indeed. It would be interesting to consider the average university in each country - anyone know of a study which does so?
posted by Infinite Jest at 12:14 AM on December 7, 2004


Does anyone have any idea how these international rankings compare with national rankings. Certainly the UK universities that appear in the top 500 rank very differently from the positions they would generally have in a UK survey. How do your country ratings compare?
posted by biffa at 2:14 AM on December 7, 2004


PS: the US welcomes and absorbs a number of immigrants every year that would make Jean-Marie Le Pen explode. That certainly impacts upon academic standards.

Canada, which does pretty well here, takes in far more immigrants per year than the US (net annual migration of 5.96 per 1000 population, compared to 3.41 in the US), although to be fair about this the composition of the immigrating population is pretty different.
posted by paul! at 4:07 AM on December 7, 2004


Schools get paid for having students in them, a few hundred dollars per day per student.

For a (short) 180-day school year, with 200 dollars each, that would make $36,000 per student. Actually, the US has easily the highest spending per student in the world at just over $10,000 per year. Proving, BTW, that (average) spending isn't the problem. (But proving nothing at all about unions being bad!)

Does anybody think blaming parents actually explains anything? To the question "Why are US scores so low?" does "Because of bad parents" actually strike anybody at all as an answer? Even if so, it's fair to ask, why are the parents bad in that not-getting-their-kids-educated-too-good way? The profound anti-intellectualism of American culture seems to me like a plausible part-answer.

(BTW, I think one could make a good case for bad education (in a broad sense) and bad politics (in a narrow sense) as the present-day US's great vicious cycle. Where else in the world would people vote for a guy because he comes across as ignorant and illiterate?)
posted by paul! at 4:28 AM on December 7, 2004


Getting rid of the intellectual elite one non-graduating class at a time.

God didn't put these maths in the Bible so they don't exist.

Soon everyone can be capable of failing upwards just like Dubya and still be a good old boy.
posted by nofundy at 4:58 AM on December 7, 2004


And worse, we are letting employers remove economic incentive. We're outsourcing tech, and bringing in wage-competetive help via H1-B visas, rather than paying those who can do it here.

Aren't you reversing cause and effect here? The reason employers need H1-B visas is because so few Americans possess the necessary skills. To utilize the dearth of domestic talent as an excuse to advocate protectionism is just perverse.
posted by Goedel at 5:04 AM on December 7, 2004


And despite this, the best universities in the world are, with few exceptions, all in the United States.

This is true for precisely the same reason why Americans get so little value for their money when it comes to high school education - the American university system is highly competitive, with money following students to the institutions they attend, rather than being allocated to said institutions to dispense to all those in a catchment area. The funny thing is, when this is advocated at the high school level, the American left stridently rejects it as anathema ...
posted by Goedel at 5:09 AM on December 7, 2004


"I won't argue with you that there are a lot of shitty teachers out there. I'd love to see what happened if teachers' wages were high enough to bring about real market forces in hiring decisions."

I suspect that if there was more market in the schools, the whole system would collapse and re-form. It really shouldn't be that hard to educate humans better than we do, on average.

(And it's not just that hot Ms. Barbera, my 10th Grade math teacher mocked me, and refused to take my deep questions seriously (and then proceeded to become an elementary school principal)!
posted by ParisParamus at 5:23 AM on December 7, 2004


"Soon everyone can be capable of failing upwards just like Dubya and still be a good old boy."

I cannot avoid declaring: Mu ha ha ha ha ha ha!
posted by ParisParamus at 5:29 AM on December 7, 2004


Goedel: It actually has more to do with the U.S. system of graduate education. Many of the problems discussed here in regard to secondary education are similar to problems seen at the undergraduate level.
posted by raysmj at 5:33 AM on December 7, 2004


Who owns and controls you, PP? Could it be Japan? Or possibly China? A single whisper from China is enough to send the US dollar tumbling.

Trouble indeed for the US economy.
posted by Fuzzy Monster at 5:51 AM on December 7, 2004


ubersturm, I wonder if MIT is representative, as regards admission statistics, of institutions nationwide.

In any event, no one is attacking the quality of the work produced by these institutions. What is being claimed is that the number of students pursuing degrees in this field is slipping, and that this will have long term consequences.

Granting mr_roboto's comments about the connection between the economy and CS & EE enrollment, I question whether or not this alone can account for the decline...
posted by Tullius at 5:55 AM on December 7, 2004


I suspect that if there was more market in the schools, the whole system would collapse and re-form. It really shouldn't be that hard to educate humans better than we do, on average.

What could possibly be suggesting to you that a market-based system would result in a well-educated general population? Maybe you're basing that on the world-renowned efficiency of the US health care system? Ah, never mind the evidence, the argument's a universal classic, any reader of The Economist knows it well: "Public bad. Private good. QED."
posted by paul! at 6:38 AM on December 7, 2004


I've been reading things like this since I was old enough to read.

I'm wondering if maybe those kids are on to something. Will there be jobs for all of them that require mathematics and problem solving when they grow up?

Or will they simply have to re-evaluate whether, in the words of George Bush, they might have to take a job which "Americans are not willing to do?"
posted by ikkyu2 at 6:45 AM on December 7, 2004


I actually have a great deal of the solution. I've been working on a method that teaches kids first through eighth grade math (through elementary algebra) in one year and seems to work on pretty average 6-8 year olds.
posted by u.n. owen at 6:52 AM on December 7, 2004


I uh... I... agree... with... um.... Paris.
posted by jon_kill at 7:15 AM on December 7, 2004


How many high school math lectures have opened with, “you are never really going to use this but …”

Worse, how about a college calculus professor hell-bent on teaching "this other way, cause that's how I learned it. There's plenty of easier, more precise ways to do this, but I had to learn it this way, so that's what I'll be teaching you guys."
posted by odinsdream at 7:21 AM on December 7, 2004


Regarding the issue of parental encouragement - my five year old chose to go to the bookshop the other day rather than get a toy - he chose (with no nudging from me) a children's encylopedia of science. On the bus home from the shop we went through the book and learned about the planets and our sun, and all sorts of facts about space.

Next to me on the bus were two kids aged maybe 10-11 and reading their faces it was patently obvious that nobody have ever taken the time to do this with them. This isn't meant to make me look like dad of the year (I'm certainly not) but I spend every moment I have teaching my son about how things work.

When he starts school next year he will be way ahead of the other kids because his mother and I put in the time. Every minute we have spent teaching him is vital because it shows him that the search for knowledge is the most wonderful thing in the whole world. It's that thirst for knowledge that we have worked for that will help him succeed despite the best efforts of the educational system.
posted by longbaugh at 7:26 AM on December 7, 2004


For me, the problem with learning Maths is that the application was always too far away from the introduction. "You will need to know this later" was never very good motivation.

I needed real and interesting problems to solve...not the typical two cars travelling stuff.
posted by srboisvert at 7:37 AM on December 7, 2004


What could possibly be suggesting to you that a market-based system would result in a well-educated general population? Maybe you're basing that on the world-renowned efficiency of the US health care system? Ah, never mind the evidence, the argument's a universal classic, any reader of The Economist knows it well: "Public bad. Private good. QED."

I, for one, as I said before, really do believe that improving the "market" for teachers would really help. The system is already "market based," as you put it, just like any job market. This doesn't mean privatization. Having a competitive market need mean nothing of the sort. This means devoting funds towards making teaching an attractive career prospect, one that rivals all the other things that truly talented people are draw towards. The current process, where the only reward of a career in teaching is a meagre salary, selects only for saints and the bottom of the barrel. Honestly, we need more than the saints in our public schools. We need the thousands of smart, articulate, passionate college-graduates who decide not to teach because everyone knows the bureaucracy is terrible, the pay sucks, and the opportunity to enact real change is nonexistant.
posted by rustcellar at 7:58 AM on December 7, 2004


First of all, "math" is a perfectly valid abbreviation for "mathematics". Just like "econ" is commonly used as an abbreviation for "economics". Such shortenings are based on common usage, not on any set rules anyway.

Secondly, I can see where NCLB could be a good thing... IF it was funded, which it isn't. The result is a cash shortage and other programs end up being gutted to make up the difference. I think the result is a whole bunch of schools getting patted on the back for the greatest number of students attaining mediocrity. Not good.

Many of these great administrators have doctorates, and many years experience in administration. Very few days in actual classes however.

In Texas, a person needs 5 years of classroom time before they can get a position in administration in a public school.

Ninety percent of the resources are spent on wasting time on the 10 percent of students that are tomorrows welfare and prison candidates.

That, sadly, is the current state of NCLB.

Some schools have other students that are "special". They might for example, choose to expose theirselves to other students any chance they get. These "special" students remain in the general population and get their own escort.


In our district, such "special" behavior gets one a trip to alternative school, essentially an in-district reform school.

You do NOT have to graduate high school to teach in Texas. Many districts have specific standards, but that remains the state standard.

Incorrect. Kind of. To get a permanent, full-time position in a public school, a person needs a teaching certification. In order to get a certification, a Bachelors Degree is required. For elementary certification, the Bachelors needs to be in Education. For secondary ed, it needs to be in the subject of primary certification (such as History), with a minor in Education. (Once certified in one subject, additional subject certs can be obtained by taking cert tests for those subjects.)

The statement is correct in the sense that non-degreed people can serve as substitute teachers, and private schools set their own requirements.
posted by Doohickie at 8:33 AM on December 7, 2004


As for the state of teacher, and the long decline. My (tongue loosely planted in cheek) explanation for the poor state of American teachers? Women's Liberation.

No, seriously, think about it. Before women's liberation, the only careers open to the majority of women were teaching and nursing. At that time highly intelligent and motivated women were widely available in the marketplace, and schools could have their pick of the best and brightest. Those same highly intelligent and motivated women these days go into other careers.

This doesn't make women's liberation a bad thing, but where as before you essentially had a pool of 50% of the population to draw your labor force from (at an often extremely low pay rate), now you have to compete with other jobs that pay more and have less bullshit to deal with.

Combined with the fact of two parent households headed by parents who will do whatever to keep the kids quiet and happy, you end up with a (partial) explanation for the current state of American education.
posted by KirTakat at 8:40 AM on December 7, 2004


KirTakat, by your lights, was women's liberation restricted to countries that perform poorly here?
posted by paul! at 9:11 AM on December 7, 2004


What about a system where student teachers constantly mark papers, invigilate tests, answer questions in classrooms, leaving good teachers "bullshit" free, to teach and work on lesson plans.

Sort of an apprenticeship?
posted by jon_kill at 9:12 AM on December 7, 2004


" Maybe you're basing that on the world-renowned efficiency of the US health care system?"

Genius, what do you mean by efficiency? The best care is available in the US--it just costs a lot. We need to tinker with the healthcare market to make it MORE market oriented, not less.
posted by ParisParamus at 9:32 AM on December 7, 2004


"Honestly, we need more than the saints in our public schools. We need the thousands of smart, articulate, passionate college-graduates who decide not to teach because everyone knows the bureaucracy is terrible, the pay sucks, and the opportunity to enact real change is nonexistant."

We don't need saints. We need people who like teaching and like children. And we need a system that isn't cringe-inducing to the vast majority of creative, smart people. How we get there is open to discussion, but that's where we need to get.
posted by ParisParamus at 9:37 AM on December 7, 2004


"by your lights, was women's liberation restricted to countries that perform poorly here?"

Oh, sorry, didn't make that clear. No, I believe that the counties that did well are those that either never used that system of women-dominated educators in the first place, or adapted their previous system to the reality of the current period. I'm not advocating a return to women as second class citizens by any means, nor do I think that would resolve the problem. I'm just pointing out that it was one of the catalysts of the downfall of the American education system.

People still tend to think of nursing and teaching as "female" jobs, and pay them (in monetary and respect) according to those old biases. And look at the state BOTH of those professions are currently in.

No, those countries who are doing well are those that acknowledged that time changed and have adapted with them.
posted by KirTakat at 9:55 AM on December 7, 2004


Having worked in the school system, I feel I can confidently state this:

Teachers are martyrs.

They are, on the whole, underpaid and overworked. They are solely responsible for a couple dozen children who are typically under-cared-for at home: latchkey kids, too much television, too little parental expectation for behaviour, too little emphasis on responsibility and work ethic. They never get to leave the job at work: they take homework home and spend hours doing corrections, wondering how to deal with Johnny, and planning the next day. They are expected to volunteer their personal time for projects, sports, plays, fundraising, and every other imaginable school activity.

Between the shit pay, the shit respect, and the shit work, the only people you get as teachers are those who are, I swear, certifiably insane: you have to be crazy to be a teacher! There is, no doubt, great reward in playing a role in the development of a child to a responsible adult who contributes beneficially to society. But, by god, that reward simply is not commensurate with the amount of work involved!

IMO the solution is to adequately fund teachers, introduce a support system that helps them deliver a quality education program, and develop some sort of rewards system that matchs the amount of effort involved in the job.

Ain't gonna happen.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:03 AM on December 7, 2004


Combined with the fact of two parent households...

Which is also, I might point out, a result of women's liberation.
posted by Doohickie at 10:52 AM on December 7, 2004


Dang... I thought it said two income households. Ah well... flame away.
posted by Doohickie at 10:53 AM on December 7, 2004


Working on the financial side of the largest public school system in the country, I see a lot of things that don't make sense here. There are so many challenges facing the NYC school system and its students that it sometimes makes you lose sleep at night (really.) No Child Left Behind, the teachers union, a broken accountability system, poverty and crime - it starts to get overwhelming. There are a lot of things about the education system that stymies innovation and real substantial change (for example, the average tenure of the NYC Chancellor of Education is only 2.2 years) and politics is often the worst offender.

One of the programs I run here is a recovery program for students who have failed atleast one semester of Math A (9/10 math, basically algebra.) Many of the schools I was dealing with had 25-60% of their students enrolled in this program - that's a lot of failing math students.


posted by moxyberry at 10:56 AM on December 7, 2004


" I thought it said two income households. Ah well... flame away."

To be honest? Yeah, I did too... DOH! Two income, not two parent (and you are correct, it is also a result of women's liberation)
posted by KirTakat at 11:16 AM on December 7, 2004


Here's something to think about: what if we set up a National Guard for teaching? You sign up, and receive free tuition for classes that instruct you on being a good teacher and compelling public speaker, with refresher courses every so often. Then, throughout your working adult life, you give one week per year to teach at a specific school. Like jury duty, employers would be required by law to give you time off for this purpose.

The assumption here is that a person's work and life experience outside of the formalized educational system gives them insight and knowledge that students would find tremendously valuable. It would give people like us the ability to share with these students all of the things we wish we could, but currently cannot without becoming full-time instructors.

I don't know about you, but a week spent talking to and learning from, say, a plumber, a CEO, a computer programmer, a retail sales clerk and a politician would likely have taught me a great deal.

I say this in part because my 8th grade teacher, prior to becoming a teacher in the Chicago public school system, worked as a milkman and a minor league pitcher. Because of this, he had many interesting stories to tell that provided links between the material we were learning and the things we were interested in. He had the kind of perspective that comes from living and working outside of the educational system. He also understood that we were working class kids with working class concerns and interests, and was able to connect to us in ways that most (not all) of our other teachers could not.

In this day and age, where it is not unusual for children to be parked in front of a television set in the classroom during school hours, I suspect a program such as this might be welcomed by the full-time teachers. They would obtain the same extra time to grade papers and whatnot that the television set currently provides, but their kids would be learning from someone new and (hopefully) interesting.
posted by davejay at 11:34 AM on December 7, 2004


"For me, the problem with learning Maths is that the application was always too far away from the introduction. "You will need to know this later" was never very good motivation."

Yeah no kidding, that hits home for me. I did great at math until 9th grade algebra, where we had the absolute worst teacher of any kind I've ever had or seen since.

What saved me (barely) was physics and chemistry, where we needed to apply that sort of math to actual real-world problems. That made it much easier for me, but it was still a struggle.

I think it would make sense to teach math and math-heavy sciences as essentially the same class, learning the mathematical techniques while applying them directly to study of science, as opposed to having separate "math class" and "science classes."

All the other mess of our school system, I haven't a clue how to fix. I got lucky, in my very-small-town high school in the early 80's, almost all the teachers were exceptionally good (that math guy only lasted that one year, and good riddance) and dedicated to making sure we actually learned to use our brains.

Most of the students, however... were the usual crew.
posted by zoogleplex at 1:24 PM on December 7, 2004


I view the problem in mathematics education in a slightly different light. I am a senior in college majoring in mathematics and the compelling thing about math(s) has always been the shear beauty of the subject. The problem is, almost all teacher before the undergraduate level do not convey this. (Hell, if I was at a different school, I might being saying this about professors also.)

The Hilbert Hotel is a good example of truly interesting math(s) that really do not have any application. But it makes one think and stretches the brain. And I like to think that musing about it is enjoyable.

And if you don't like infinities, take a look at the Oracle problem.

I know that this is not for all people, but I imagine that if these were introduced during, say middle school. (This is very doable, take a look at the Math Circle (which I attended from age 8-13) which is one of the definite causes for my choice of major.)

I'm hoping to teach high school upon graduation, at least for a little while, to try to inspire a few kids to see the beauty in this stuff.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that math doesn't always have to be relevant to the real world for it to be interesting. How relevant are sports statistics and player trades to everyday life anyway?
posted by Hactar at 8:40 PM on December 7, 2004


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