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How We're Doing Vs. Other Countries


Q. I know someone whose job is to help math majors from foreign countries get work visas in the United States because American companies can't find enough people with math credentials. Just how well or how poorly are we doing in math education compared to other countries?


It's hard to know, since the United States has pulled out of the TIMSS (Trends in Mathematics and Science Study) Advanced 2008. In 1995, United States students did so poorly in algebra, geometry, calculus and physics that only the kids from Cyprus and South Africa scored lower. Math educators took a ton of heat about the poor showing, and rumor has it that avoiding political embarrassment is the real reason for the decision to not participate in TIMSS any more.


According to the official report, Australia, Germany and Finland aren't participating, either, and the U.S. decided the $3 million to $10 million it cost to given the 2-hour test to about 4,000 American high-school seniors wasn't worth the time and expense.


Another study, published in 2007 by the American Institutes for Research ( revealed that American eighth-graders trailed their age peers in Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan in an internationally standardized math test. The only exception was Massachusetts, which tied with Japan. Students in the District of Columbia were doing the worst among the United States student population, trailing the math scores of eighth-graders in 29 countries.


Do the test scores reveal serious deficiencies in American math education, or is there something else going on? Scholars argue that while American kids no longer lead the world in math computation, they are more inquisitive and innovative than Asian students, as a general rule, and see "the big picture" better. Asian schools tend to use rote learning, and drill their students to perfection on math operations. But, scholars contend, math ability within a "big picture" context is more important than math ability that seeks perfection on a minute sliver of that "big picture" in the form of math problems on a test.


But what drives employers and policymakers crazy is that American students USED to rule the world in BOTH computation AND problem-solving. They want to find ways to get back to that status, without caving in to political pressure to return to "drill and kill" computational practice, rapping knuckles for wrong answers and all that.


It would help to be smarter about what the statistics mean. That can be tricky when dealing with so many different countries with such vastly different school systems and student populations. A few years ago, Duke University published a study that revealed that in 2004 the United States produced 70,000 engineers, compared with 600,000 for China and 350,000 for India. That sounded ghastly. But look closer: the U.S. engineering graduates have completed four-year (and in many cases five-year) degrees from accredited institutions, while the numbers from China and India include engineers who have completed three-year programs or diplomas, more like our community colleges or technical schools.


There does appear to be a new push to return math instruction to traditional formats as a result of these disappointments on the international scene. There appears to be funding and direction to beef up upper-level math in order to beef up advanced science instruction in American high schools. In August 2007, Congress passed the America COMPETES (Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education and Science) Act, with $43.6 billion for science education and research.


Homework: See the TIMMS research site on


By Susan Darst Williams Math 13 2008


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