Americans suck at math. Mathematician trade deficit ensues...
February 7, 2001 2:42 PM   Subscribe

Americans suck at math. Mathematician trade deficit ensues... I only find this article interesting because of a talk with my math teacher recently about how most math teachers these days are foriegners, although she isn't, and not that foriegners are bad. But I'm curious if this a bad problem in today's economy or not? Or if this is a problem? What country is good at math? India and China? That's where most of the Silicon Valley CEO's workers are from these days. Or is that political, financial? I don't know. Do you know?
posted by redleaf (22 comments total)
Sorry I missed a comma should be: CEO's, workers.
posted by redleaf at 2:45 PM on February 7, 2001

This is just wrong in so many ways...thank god I'm a 'foriegner' is all I can say without getting apoplectic.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:53 PM on February 7, 2001

Wrong? About something I said? About American's being stupid? Using the word "foriegner"? What? If I offended you I apologize. =\
posted by redleaf at 6:18 PM on February 7, 2001

Reading my original post over again I realize I might need to clarify a bit. Every year we get this debate about Americans falling behind in Math and Science and then there is the debate about what to do about it. This is all figured with worldwide test scores from what I understand.

My main question is what the difference is in curriculum that makes most of the developed countries outside the USA so much better. Do you feel you are really good at math? Do you know why? Is there something in the way its taught or thought about that makes it easier to master?

I'm awful at math. And a fear of anything math seems to be common among Americans.

The US has a shortage of Math and Science teachers and the problem is only getting worse. No one's getting into it. Which is obviously bad in a computer-centered economy. This leads into the other debate about H1-B visas and the shortage of high tech workers in the US.

I'm sorry if the main post offends anyone or sounds jingoistic in some way. I didn't want it to come off that way and especially to make anyone come close to seizures or foaming at the mouth.

I'd just like to hear about how you we're taught math. And if you think it was good. My education in math and science was so varied to be ridiculous. Until high school I went to private school and the math was pretty well drilled into our heads, science as well, and the teachers seemed to know or majored in the topics they talked about and seemed to like and had the time to teach it. But in High School I went to public school and the Math and Science varied from ok to indifferent to what? My first math teacher would spend most classes talking about herself and then get around to math sometime, my second was pretty good but had too much of a workload over a 100 or so students a day I believe, and the third was like the Football Asst. coach and the only thing you learned in that class what you read from the book, since most of his time was spent in the hallway talking to the security guard or the school's athletes. For science it was mostly shrill housewives along things of a bad sitcom. They taught it but and knew what they were talking about but you could tell they hated the kids in the class or at least came off that way. There were some exceptions but they were just that exceptions. Now I'm in college and am awful at anything with numbers and need to catch up.

How was your schooling?
posted by redleaf at 7:04 PM on February 7, 2001

Hmm. My math/science schooling (US public magnet school) was actually quite good. I took courses in both math and science all four years of high school, finishing with AP Environmental Science and AP Calculus. I had one teacher who was frightening and apparently detested most of her students, and another who seemed to be as sleep-deprived as I was, but I learned a great deal overall. Still, I think that the curriculum overall wasn't as challenging as it would have been in Europe; I attended a French school for about a year many years ago, and I remember that the third-graders were doing long division, something I didn't learn until 4th or 5th grade when I went back home.
posted by Jeanne at 7:52 PM on February 7, 2001

You have to wonder whether US schoolkids are hampered by the absence of the metric system from common parlance. Even in the imperially-minded UK, most people of my age or younger can work with both systems when the occasion demands...
posted by holgate at 8:43 PM on February 7, 2001

Jeanne: I attended a public magnet school too but it was a pre-law magnet so math and science weren't really focused on. :)

and another who seemed to be as sleep-deprived as I was

Heh. No doubt with all those AP classes you must have been bleary-eyed.

Even in the imperially-minded UK, most people of my age or younger can work with both systems when the occasion demands...

When I was in Britain awhile back I was utterly confused by how people weighed themselves. It would seem to be either kilograms or "stones" with no rhyme or reason. I'd never even heard of stones before and still don't understand them or a few other English measurements, and I thought thats where all ours came from, I guess we changed them around.

Awhile back I read a very good article about the metric system in Canada but a search on Google and Dogpile only turned up this, this, this, and this that are close to it. To bad too the article was quite funny with the interviews and facts it had. The gist of the article was that the metric system was never properly converted so most people just became confused and gave up. I think it was a Canadian daily, probably from when Trudeau died or maybe not. Anyone know a better news search?
posted by redleaf at 10:24 PM on February 7, 2001

I can only offer my own perspective on this. I went to MIT in college, after a weak public school education K-12. I am a father of 4 boys, all scoring many grades ahead on the standardized testing in math, and I am an Internet CEO with 25 software engineers, mostly Russian, working for me.

Like any complicated question, there are many factors that influence the outcomes, but the salient points I would emphasize (again, just my personal feelings based on personal experience) here are:
1. The U.S. public school system is inhibiting teachers from maintaining an environment that is conducive to learning, through fear of litigation. One bad apple can ruin the whole barrel when everyone is trying to think and learn, and if teachers aren't given enough authority to impose discipline on their classrooms, it's hardly surprising that not much gets taught. Most parents don't understand the degree to which this has happened, and aren't making the effort to compensate by teaching kids at home. Hence, we -- as a country -- are falling behind.
2. The problem with the curriculum is therefore simply that kids aren't given the opportunity to learn -- either by the environment or the materials -- except at the pace at which the teacher can move the whole class along. My kids think math is fun, because we challenge them with it at home and praise them when they figure things out. They like it much better than English, because (at least until you get into chaos theory and non-Euclidean geometries), it has definite answers!
3. Any CEO worth his salt doesn't give a rat's ass where somebody grew up. Show me a Martian with a PhD in robotics, flow mechanics, or even, yes, math, who can speak English, interact interpersonally in a productive manner, and will work for $80K a year -- and he's an alien with a job. It's the economics, baby!

On an interesting side note, though, I will say that the difference in work ethic between U.S.-born employees and foreign-born employees is startling. Perhaps this is because they -- the foreign-born workers here in the U.S. -- understand how lucky they are to be here (and I do realize how much like an "ugly American" that comment makes me sound, but I am specifically referring to economic, religious and/or political freedom). Any way, that's a topic for another day -- or another post!
posted by JParker at 11:28 PM on February 7, 2001

My main problem with public school education was that it was never particularly challenging. I only once encountered a mathematical concept that took considerable study to grasp, and this was in a college prep curriculum. When I actually got to college, I discovered that what I had thought of as "studying hard" was woefully inadequate to the task of understanding the new concepts I was expected to learn, from a prof who spoke English as a second language and TAs who barely spoke English at all. In fact I later came to the conclusion that I had never actually learned to study in high school, I'd just coasted through on my excellent memory and my intuitive grasp of abstractions. When my limits were exceeded, I had no idea how to deal with the situation. Worse, there were an awful lot of interesting things to do on campus and you wouldn't immediately get into trouble if you cut a class. I spent a year struggling at Ohio State, then bailed. Sometimes I wish I'd stuck it out, but then, the things I find I really want to know about now (philosophy, literature, art) wouldn't have been part of my engineering curriculum anyway. But I probably would be wicked good at math now if I'd found a way to discipline myself then. Hard to do at the age of 17, though.
posted by kindall at 12:24 AM on February 8, 2001

Pretty much the exact opposite experience for me. College was east after 4 years of a good high school, and I'm now going towards a degree in Math, maybe even graduate work. And i wasn't even in the highest level high school classes. Take that, BC class.
posted by dcodea at 2:15 AM on February 8, 2001

I don't think what we're talking about is a lack of mathematicians, but a lack of people with an good understanding of mathematics. I don't think anyone is getting worried about a lack of Americans with a working knowledge of projective geometry or Galois theory, but rather that public discussion of science and certain areas of applied mathematics (statistics) is curtailed by general innumeracy.

That said, in response to the question above and discussing only mathematicians, a number of grad students in the math department at my college (where I got my undergraduate degree in math) were from Greece and the former Soviet Union (Russia and the Ukraine, IIRC). China, France, Germany, Israel, and India also produce large numbers of mathematicians.
posted by snarkout at 8:27 AM on February 8, 2001

It may or may not be evident from my name, but I was a math major. And I was a math major because I had amazing math teachers.

The public school system I attended through 8th grade had terrific math and science programs. The high school regularly sends several grads to MIT, CalcTech, etc. I was lucky to get into Algebra in 8th grade, which set me a year ahead in math so that I could take AP Calc once I was a senior.

For high school I switched to our local Catholic school, which was not particularly known for its academic excellence. However, the math teachers were fabulous. The nun who taught me 9th grade Geometry was the first to open my eyes to how cool math could be. And Mr. Fayad, my Algebra II - AP Calc teacher was one of the best teachers I have ever had. By two months into my soph year, I knew I wanted to be a math major.

College brought more great math professors. I was lucky to go to a small liberal arts college with a great math program. My largest math class was 35 students, but most were 10. Professors taught every class; there were no TAs. Lectures were rare. Instead, we worked in small groups after an intro by the prof, and made our own discoveries without being told what we were looking for.

Am I using math now? Sadly, no. But the logical aspects of the math I learned help me every day. And its my dream to someday be a high school math teacher, and give back a bit of what was given to me.
posted by xsquared-1 at 9:07 AM on February 8, 2001

Wow thanks everyone for the great posts. They're alot better than I expected.

3. Any CEO worth his salt doesn't give a rat's ass where somebody grew up. Show me a Martian with a PhD in robotics, flow mechanics, or even, yes, math, who can speak English, interact interpersonally in a productive manner, and will work for $80K a year -- and he's an alien with a job. It's the economics, baby!

I don't disagree with that. =]

kindall: I feel the same way as you.

And thinking more about school I realize that the main problem was probably that many of the Math and Science teachers we're either Coach's or people from different fields. That was the case with about 10-20% of the teachers, not many overall, but still too much. And probably the root of people falling behind.

Jparker: I agree with you about the one bad apple ruining the whole barrel. It's like public schools have become day care centers for teenagers and its better to have them in the school than out on the streets at whatever cost to the school.

dcodea, xsquared: What state did you go to school in? I think their might not just be a big difference between the US and foriegn countries but between states in US. I went to school in Florida, Broward County specifically. And I think Florida is probably down at the bottom of the barrel especially Broward schools.

Thanks again for all the great posts. I just wish some people outside the US would describe their schooling.
posted by redleaf at 10:08 AM on February 8, 2001

Yeah, not really fair comparison. The moral of my high school education is that while education problems can't be solved with money, solutions can certainly be very closely approximated; I went to New Trier high school, "one of the top ten high schools that thinks it's number one." Rich neighborhood=lots of money for high school=good high school.
As long as property taxes remain the primary means for funding high schools, rich neighborhoods will always be at an advantage.
posted by dcodea at 10:12 AM on February 8, 2001

Redleaf: high school was in NJ, college in Massachusetts
posted by xsquared-1 at 10:28 AM on February 8, 2001

I was held back a year in math, two separate times (5th grade & 7th grade), because there would have been no class to accomodate me - I was ready for the most advanced class in my elementary and middle schools a year too early.

These were public schools, in Colorado, in the richest school district in the state.

I ended up in calc in my senior year, but fizzled out at the end due to lack of motivation. I went to the Colorado School of Mines and took Calc I (again), Calc II (again), Calc III (easier than calc II), and fizzled out when I got to Diff Eq (and simultaneously realized that I didn't want to be an Electrical Engineer, or at that school anymore).

The topics in Calc II were much tougher when presented in high school than they were when I took them the second time - I lucked out and got a professor whose teaching style meshed perfectly with my learning style. I worked hard, learned it well, and aced the class.

I've always loved math - how could a person not? :) And on top of that, I always loved word problems.

Someday I hope to homeschool my daughter (at least partially), and I've already started stocking up on the same old math textbooks I had in elementary school: Mathematics Around Us (I have three, with the following covers: oranges, guitars, and skyscrapers at night). Those books are excellent!

And I always like Heinlein's quote:

Anyone who cannot cope with mathematics is not fully human. At best, he is a tolerable sub-human who has learned to wear shoes, bathe, and not make a mess in the house.
posted by beth at 11:23 AM on February 8, 2001

I had a decent math experience in Canadian high schools, but I think I enjoyed them as much as I did because Math is Cool!

(it just depends on your definition of 'cool' :-)

In Kindergarten two friends and I were doing grade 2 math sheets to keep ourselves busy while the other kids struggled with the 1+2 concept.

That was really the only point in time I was really boosted ahead in math. Somewhere around grade 4 I encountered one of my older siblings' text books, and realized the power of using letters to represent an unknown.

Coincidentally enough, it was around then that I had my first erotic dream. Hrm...

Ahem. Uh, anyway, two of my math teachers were absolutely fantastic. My grade 9 teacher was really the first teacher that was able to force me to do homework more than 5 minutes before the class started. She got excited about math, too, and obviously enjoyed teaching us.

My grade 12 teacher used to play Soccer for the toronto team, but quit in order to teach math. He's also a phenominal man, who was not only excited about math, but he was very cool and very popular with the kids. It's pretty safe to assume that a popular teacher makes kids enjoy learning a little more, too.

My finite mathematics teacher sucked, but since I didn't plan on doing grade 13 (now, thankfully, defunct even in ontario! believe me, you don't care about the details :-) I ended up dropping the course because I had no idea what was going on.

When I got to college (Sheridan College in Ontario, you may have heard of it for it's animation & illustration programs, but certainly not for its computer science program :-) I had a finite course and understood exactly what was going on.
posted by cCranium at 11:59 AM on February 8, 2001

America doesn't hold wisdom as highly as it should. Respect goes to the rich, the powerful, and the cool. There's your troubles.
posted by mblandi at 1:59 PM on February 8, 2001

If someone's wisdom is presented to me by reading out of the text book in a predictable monotone, I'd rather get that wisdom directly out of a textbook, thank you very much.
posted by cCranium at 2:29 PM on February 8, 2001

My math schooling ended up just peachy, through the public school system and everything; on the other hand, I got dumb lucky finding a school district that was willing to accomodate me. I too exhausted my grade school's mathematical offerings a couple years too early, but they were more than happy to let me cobble together a schedule across schools as the years went on - math at the junior high / rest of classes at grade school, math at high school / rest of classes at junior high, math at UCSC / rest of classes at high school, etc.

I can't imagine how unbearably plodding school would've been had they been sticklers to "well, rules are rules" and forced me into a "normal" class schedule. Probably would've been bored as all hell. Doubly so had I been born a few years later, when the district began eschewing standard math classes in favor of "draw a poster showing some conceptual tools you might use to work on this problem"... [shudder]....

Oh, for the record: school located in the mountains near Santa Cruz, California, if that's of any relevance.
posted by youhas at 3:11 PM on February 8, 2001

Doubly so had I been born a few years later, when the district began eschewing standard math classes in favor of "draw a poster showing some conceptual tools you might use to work on this problem"... [shudder]....

Touchy-feely math is another part of the problem or so I hear. I never had that and have only read about it.

Dual enrollment, going to high school and taking some college classes, is pretty normal in Florida. If you want to do that its the same as signing up for any other class. And I believe its encouraged more now to thin the school population.

As far grade school and junior high though I'd never heard of that before. Probably the same deal. Except it must be hard to get to all those schools without a car. You must really be a math whiz if your ability was noticed while taking basic math.
posted by redleaf at 11:53 PM on February 8, 2001

Dual enrollment, going to high school and taking some college classes, is pretty normal in Florida. If you want to do that its the same as signing up for any other class. And I believe its encouraged more now to thin the school population.

Real motives notwithstanding, it sounds like a fairly convenient way to let high school kids embark on collegiate material if they're so inclined. I certainly would've appreciated such a thing. Our local high school's philosophy was more along the lines of, "Hey, if you want to take college classes and can fit 'em in somewhere, great; just leave us the heck out of it, mmm'kay?"

Except it must be hard to get to all those schools without a car.

Ah, the memories of the countless hours on the valley's bus system come flooding back.... :-)

You must really be a math whiz if your ability was noticed while taking basic math.

Well, the elementary school's implementation of a "learn at your own rate" math program really helped in that regard. So long as you could prove that you thoroughly understood the material, you could advance to the next section, your progress being largely independent of any other student's. I'm sure it was a logistical nightmare, but it really did give a chance for "self-starters" to make great headway while slower learners got the extra attention they desired.

But anyhow: yeah, I managed to plow through something like a projected four years' worth of coursework in two years, which made me stand out as a Big Anomaly in the system. That's when I got noticed, started busing myself between schools, parlayed my lack of social life into several county awards and a state championship, et cetera and so forth. (Not that anyone would know by looking at me today: I lost my taste for unapplied math at some point and became a boring ol' computer geek, just like everybody else.)
posted by youhas at 2:57 AM on February 9, 2001

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