Is it time to revise the old canards about United States math and science education?

There’s no shortage of informed people on The Dope and elsewhere whom, when queried about the status of the United States educational system, will reflexively offer up the opinion that our schools, particularly in the fields of math and science, are universally and atrociously inadequate for the future needs of a service based global economy.

I was very privileged to attend some excellent public schools that I found to be plenty challenging. A significant portion of my graduating class had launched into differential equations, electromagnetism, and molecular biology by the time they had graduated from high-school. None the less, the prevailing opinion of educators and the Wall Street Journal editorial page alike seemed to assure me that the United States’ schools were in a state of perpetual crisis churning out graduates that were overwhelmingly completely unprepared to compete with much smarter, much better educated children from other countries. I recall the phrase, “laughing stock,” being a fair part of the dialog on American achievement in primary education, and to add insult to injury, half of the population probably couldn’t point to Alaska or whatever nation we happened to have half of our army stationed in at the time on a map. From the National Foundation for Science and the National Center for Education Statistics regarding the American populace:

“• Two-thirds do not understand DNA, “margin of error,” the scientific process, and do not
believe in evolution.
• Half do not know how long it takes the earth to go around the sun, and a quarter does not
even know that the earth goes around the sun.
• Half think humans coexisted with dinosaurs and believe antibiotics kill viruses.”
• Eighty-eight percent believe in alternative medicine.
• Half believe in extrasensory perception and faith healing.
• Forty percent believe in haunted houses and demonic possession.
• A third believes in lucky numbers, ghosts, telepathy, clairvoyance, astrology, and that
UFOs are aliens from space.
• A quarter believes in witches and that we can communicate with the dead.
• Seventy-eight percent cannot explain how to compute the interest paid on a loan.
• Seventy-one percent cannot calculate miles per gallon on a trip.
• Fifty-eight percent cannot calculate a 10% tip for a lunch bill."

Is this view about the poor quality of American schools accurate?

Today the American Institute for Research published a fairly comprehensive report that compares standardized testing scores in math and science between all 50 American states and a number of other nations and generally found that American achievement on these tests was comparable to other nations. Rather than lagging far behind other developed nations, I would say that as a whole the United States did alright. Also, in many cases, the variance between states seems much larger than variances between other countries.

Here are a few of the key findings from the executive summary and some selected results:
“At the national level, several Asian countries generally outperform the United States in
both mathematics and science, while many African and Middle Eastern Countries
performed significantly below the United States. The United States was generally
comparable to other English-speaking nations and European countries.”

“There are 31 countries that are significantly below the United States in their percentages of
proficient mathematics students. These are …
2. Israel,
3. England,
4. Scotland
5. New Zealand,
6. Sweden,

11. Italy,

15. Norway,

Ten countries have science performance similar to the United States. These are

  1. Netherlands,
  2. Australia,
  3. Sweden,
  4. New Zealand,
  5. Slovak Republic,
  6. Lithuania,
  7. Slovenia,
  8. Russian Federation,
  9. Scotland,
  10. Belgium (Flemish),”

So, although the general state of knowledge in the United States on math and science might be atrocious in some abstract sense, it seems as if we’re about typical for other developed nations.

I’m not suggesting that there isn’t room or a need for improvement, certainly there is both. It’s a separate debate, but I feel that federal legislation such as the No Child Left Behind Act has generally put us on the right track for accurately measuring and further improving education in this country. The tone of the debate needn’t be about radically overhauling a completely broken system, but making incremental evidence based improvements in education to further improve education in the United States.

Just to nitpick, witches exist. I have known several, and claimed to be one myself for a while.

It’s a quasi-relgious thing, and has nothing to do with flying around on a broom and avoiding falling houses.

But yes, as a student, and a parent, I am worried indeed about the state of science and math in the US. This is speaking as someone who is taking Algebra, again, because I can’t seem to pass it.

I;ve long suspected the "statistics: they put up. For example, are they asking

“Do you believe in homeopathic remedies?”


“Do you believe homeopathic remedies work?”


“Do you believe homeopathic remedies work better than ‘mainstream’ medicine?”


“Would you try nontraditional medical therapy?”

or whatever. Hundreds of idea. Who are they asking, and when?

In any case, I noticed that most of their statements are themselves rather stupid. Manking DOES coexist with dinosaurs. There’s never been any hard line drawn the disassociate birds from the old T. Rex; some species haven’t changed too much since the end of the old dino age.

In the conclusion of the executive summary the original document on which your link is based states that: “The paper argues that the United States needs to substantially increase the scientific and mathematical competency of the general adult population …” and “…In addition we need larger numbers of people working in the scientific disciplines …”

The measures by which the NSF determined that the level of scientific and mathematical knowledge of the general US population is atrocious were not “abstract”. They are measures applicable to any developed country, which is ruled by its general populace. The US is atrocious and the canards stand. Comparisons with other countries only show that most of them suck, too.

I also do not believe that the comparisons support your conclusion. First, notice that while many small, not known for technical proficiency countries are included (Bulgaria, Slovakia, Moldova, Cyprus), some countries known for technical proficiency are not (Germany, France). The United Kingdom is one country divided into at least two parts (Scotland and England). Presumably this is fine for comparing states to “countries”, but not country to country. Also not that the United Kingdom hasan educational system under similar attack to ours, and the English speaking country perhaps most similar to the US, Canada, is not included.

Of the major western European countries, only Hungary, Sweden, Norway, Belgium (Flemish), the Netherlands, Italy and the United Kingdom are included. Three of these score significantly better than the US in one category or the other. Only Italy is always worse. Since every other study I’ve seen of Norway and Sweden rate them quite highly compared to even the east Asian countries, there is clearly some “wiggle room” in the statistics.

The majority of US citizens can’t compute 10% of a decimal number. Basically, we suck. The comparisons show that the United Kingdom sucks like us. Most of the English speaking countries probably suck like us. The rest of northwestern Europe sucks less, although you can’t really tell since the most populous countries, Germany and France are not included. East Asia sucks the least.

Anyone remember the report “A Nation At Risk” back in 1983? Same deal: the U.S. was falling off the edge with respect to math and science education. We weren’t going to have enough technologically-skilled people to compete with the rest of the world.

Except that the kids who were in primary and secondary school then were the backbone of the tech boom of the late 1990s. Guess the kids must’ve been taught OK after all.

Well, I don’t believe Wiccans exist. And even if they did, I know that they were around at the time of dinosaurs. :wink:

Okay, so I think you’re making two basic arguments. First, that our absolute performance in scientific or mathematical literacy is more important than our relative performance. I guess the point is debatable, but you certainly wouldn’t argue that the world is facing a crisis in terms of a lack of intelligent people, would you? Of course, I’m sure we’d be better off if everyone was smarter, more empathetic, and better looking, but there’s been no shortage of scientific development or GDP growth in the world over the past two decades, has there?

Basically, “suck” is a relative and therefore abstract state. Certainly, the average science and math ability of the general public isn’t where we might like it to be on the sorts of tests the NSF is publishing, but we’re also probably a lot smarter than we were in the Middle Ages.

Therefore, the only meaningful and objective criteria we can use to quantify our science and math performance is comparing ourselves to similarly developed contemporary nations.

Where specifically would you find fault with the methodology of this study? Alternatively, what are some other recent studies that you would point to for having better research methodologies and different results? Education isn’t really my field and I haven’t done a comprehensive review of the literature, but this study strikes me as a fairly well executed one from an unbiased source. I presume that Germany and France were not included because appropriate TIMMS data for the year analyzed were not available.

Also, I reject your analysis, of, “Three of these score significantly better than the US in one category or the other. Only Italy is always worse.” I’m not arguing that the United States has the best math and science education, I’m arguing that the United States is comparable to similarly developed nations. I think the most appropriate comparisons come from the overall rankings rather than cherry-picking comparisons. I’m sure that every nation in the world probably outscores the United States on some particular measure, but I think you’ll agree the most appropriate means of comparison is from aggregate rankings.

For people that would like to see those rankings or how a particular state faired in the rankings, there’s a link to the PDF at the bottom of this page.

You could also ask whether asking if people believe in something is a reasonable measure of success in science education. I don’t think it is. The point of science classes is, after all, to teach something about the scientific method, biology, chemistry, physics, and what have you, not to indoctrinate people in the “correct” beliefs about things like astrology, ghosts, evolution, and what have you. “Explain the theory of evolution” is a fair question to measure how well our science classes are doing, “do you believe in evolution” isn’t.

OK - I have snipped your list down to the more important issues IMHO. For each of these I wonder how much it matters in terms of day-to-day life for the vast majority of our population?

DNA - not necessary, and what do they mean by “understand”? We are still figuring out DNA ourselves, and asked the general population to grok it is not necessary.
The Scientific Process - I would love to see how they defined that question and answer. The process is rather complicated (getting into issues like fishing trips in data streams and whether or not that is legit, etc). Again, not a great concern of mine for the general population.
Evolution: This concerns me a bit, only because it is such a big political battle. Again, however, I am not convinced that my local grocer, banker, or gas station attendant truly needs to understand evolution or even believe in it.
Earth and Solar System Rotation. OK, this is only sad. Then again, how often is astronomy taught?

What REALLY concerns me? The very basic math skills in the last 3. I just finished teaching a merit badge and we spent a lot of time on compound interest, debt, etc. I won’t touch tipping given where I am typing. MPG should be understood as well, or at least the basic math skills necessary.

Today’s newspaper story tells it all (Do not read if you insist the US is adequate)

"Study Compares States’ Math and Science Scores With Other Countries’

How so? The gist of the article on this study seems to approximate my read on it:
““It shows we’re not doing as badly as some say,” Mr. Toch said. “We’re in the top half of the table, and a number of states are outperforming the majority of the nations in the study. But our performance in math and science lags behind that of the front-running Asian nations.””

It’s not my list. It belongs to the introduction of the cited study, which in turned picked it up from the National Science Foundation and the National Center for Education Statistics.

Why is one set of, “gosh-darn, that’s appaling that x% of the population can’t do this basic thing or doesn’t know this basic fact,” relevant but the other set irrelevant? I’ll argue that any such set of, “facts everyone should know,” is limited by the subjective importance of each.

It’s like when The Dope does those IMHO threads about what every adult ought to know and invariably people start mentioning motorcycle repair and the ability to critically analyze Proust. Which, again, are both nice things to know but not strictly relevant to being a contributing member of our modern society.

So it goes with these lists the suppose to demonstrate the shocking ignorance of our society. I think a comparative study of our nation’s math and science abilities is far more important than any such a list, and by that metric, we’re not doing so badly.

Yes, I’m confident the average man on the street was referring to his knowledge of cladistics when answering that one.

Algher: Hypothetically, in a society where individuals can affect policy it’s important for the citizenry to be knowledgeable and informed on the issues. Knowing what DNA is or how evolution works can actually be quite important, especially if we’re going to be talking about cloning, stem cell research, or abortion. Other issues may not appear important to you at first glance. But think it through. If you don’t know what the scientific method is or whether the Earth orbits the sun then that says something about you. And if we, as a society, are going to confront complex, nuanced issues (don’t laugh!) it would be good if more people knew a little history or understood what some common fallacies meant or…you get the idea.

To me, intelligence is more the ability to learn than what has been learn. I’m not saying anything about that. I am saying that absolute performance is much more important than relative. If the electorate determines whether or not creationism is taught in schools, I’d rather a very large majority know that the last of the non-avian dinosaurs extirpated 60 million years ago.

Economic growth and scientific development are quite arguably due to the few and not the many. (In that study, after all, Russia compares well as us, and their economic growth is mostly from natural resources.) Only a small population needs to be technically and scientifically proficient to create new technology. One guy invented the TV. Two guys to invent the remote. Apparently, we produce or import a sufficiently large number to grow economically.

I also believe that most of our economic growth has resulted from advances in mathematical fields. Since the mathematically inept never claim that Number Theory is “just a theory”, they seem to be willing to let it be taught. We are not so lucky with the biological fields, and I believe their economic importance will grow rapidly. When the majority are willing to believe Creationism and Evolution are on the same scientific footing, I worry for our future growth. When a large percentage can’t find the US, let alone anywhere else, on the globe, I cease to wonder about some of our international relations.

If you are reduced to arguing that the US educational system is no better than none at all, for the general population, you are arguing over the degree to which it sucks.

Therefore implies some kind of logical link. I don’t see one. I say the only meaningful and objective criteria we can use to quantify our science and math performance are those that enable people to vote wisely (geography, history, evolution) and not get ripped off (math, physics, alternative medicine).

I don’t object to the methodology of this study. The concludes that while the US is doing ok compared this group of nations, we need to do a better job. (They also point out that only two countries are doing a good job with science education.) They conclude that while there is a wide variation in results by state, no state compares well to a not small set of countries.

I was just pointing out that compared to those with whom the comparison is fair, we don’t do all that well. So what if we compare well to developing nations? If we don’t score better than Botswana, than all hope is lost. If we don’t score better than countries that barely educate half their population, and have a large population of menial laborers from other countries, like Saudi Arabia, all hope is lost. The set of countries includes in former eastern bloc countries, middle eastern countries (Israel might be fair to include, except I don’t know if they accounted for the large immigrant population), and African countries - hardly any of which you would a priori expect to compare well, just based on wealth and social customs.

If comparisons with other countries matter at all, then it is comparisons with northwestern Europe and east Asia that matter. I did not cherry pick, I just looked at the set that would seem to form a fair comparison, and looked at their overall rankings in mathematics and science.

The data have been clear for some time. The three TIMSS studies have shown our deficiencies with alarming clarity. You can read the 2003 data report at this link WARNING: PDF.

You can see that we ranked behind:

Korea, Rep. of
Hong Kong
Chinese TaipeiJapan
Belgium (Flemish)

by significant amounts at the 8th grade level. (page 34) We ranked behind

Russian Federation
Slovak Republic

by statistically significant amounts, though the difference was small. And although the data show that we increased our absolute performance from 1999 to 2003, our relative performance is not significantly improved in terms of how many countries out-achieve us.

Further, it’s very difficult to say exactly what is happening as time goes by. For example, the 8th graders studied in 2003 were not studied as 4th graders in 1999, making comparisons over time hard. But from 1995 to 1999, the students who were in 4th grade in 1995 actually did more poorly in relative performance in 1999 as 8th graders, despite having reduced the disparity when compared to 1995 8th graders.

What to make of this? That’s harder to say. One of the things that is clear from the research is that American students spend an inordinate amount of the day doing things OTHER than problem solving (by “problem”, we are not talking an exercise, that is, a repetitive reinforcement of a particular algorithm or skill, but rather a situation with a goal that requires use of knowledge and reasoning processes to resolve). The video study done in 1999 is instructive. In the Japanese 8th grade classroom, students spend a class period solving two problems requiring knowledge of geometry; the American class spends the whole period on a series of exercises dealing with knowledge of various properties of angles (during the period, the class works or corrects well over 100 exercises!). Thus, the emphasis in American classrooms focuses on: can you do a skill your teacher has shown you? In a Japanese classroom, the focus is: can you apply prior knowledge to a new situation, discovering a new principle of math (with the teacher guiding and facilitating the learning process)?

And yet, to this day, despite this evidence, despite reams of research showing that it is counter-productive, the typical American mathematics classroom works essentially identical to how it did 30+ years ago when I was in school. A teacher sits at the front, displays some math concept on a chalkboard/whiteboard/SmartBoard, has a few examples worked out for the class, then hands out a worksheet and requires the students to do 20 to 40 examples of the exact same thing, with only the numbers changed to protect the boringness.

Where is the construction of knowledge (Piaget)? Where is the social communication needed for that construction (Vygotsky)? I’ll tell you where: buried under a landslide of apathy on the part of teachers in our schools who are unwilling to take the time to prepare and teach truly interesting lessons, largely because they’ve become babysitters for students who have little or no interest in the process, having been taught from their entry into the classroom that education is a right, not a privilege, causing the teacher to spend increasing amounts of time dealing with discipline issues, rather than with teaching issues.

And yet, are our industries truly lagging yet? So we really have the inability to stay ahead technically? Are American college students unable to get jobs because they all go to people educated elsewhere? Not so much, I’m thinking…

So, it’s a mixed bag, the results of these studies: we don’t compare well, but then again, does that really matter?

I didn’t read the article in the Wall Street Journal. I am curious to know how the Journal can make sweeping statements about what US kids believe or their specific understanding of science and math. Did they have an actual sample of the test with responses?

I browsed through the IEA study. I consider the research valid and reliable. There are stringent standards for educational and psychological testing, and I am sure those standards were met. The IEA worked collaboratively with national research centers in each participating country and The International Study Center at Boston College. Ethical research is peer reviewed and replicated and any type of norm referenced educational test is carefully designed. Some of these tests have tremendous impact on the student’s life, the SAT for example.

This is a test example, without the diagram, taken from the IEA study.

The owner of AIR is the former CEO of Verizon and sits on the board of multiple corporations, including Murdoch’s Direct TV. The institute also reviewed CIA research. Personally, I think AIR is research with a mission, not ethical, but not a new idea, either.

The “sweeping statements about what US kids believe” is actually from an NSF study on adults. Read the first statement in your own quote.

Fortunately, it doesn’t matter if 90% of the population is clueless - the remaining 10% can design, build and maintain the high-tech equipment the society needs. In other words, it’s more important that the smart kids be given a free hand than the dumb kids be brought up to speed.

I don’t actually know why you wrote a second paragraph that says the precise opposite to the first, but I assume I’m just missing something there.

In America, a good education is not the only way to do well at life – there are tons of low-level jobs that offer an acceptable living with next to no education. It’s much harder to become wealthy, but you can probably get by. Compare that to less developed countries, where education can potentially be the sole difference between starvation and wealth. Even among intellectuals, that makes a massive difference in how hard you work.

You’re serious, right? :frowning: