Why do children in the United States perfom so poorly in math?
July 15, 2006 8:42 AM   Subscribe

Why do children in the United States perform so poorly in math?

I have read numerous articles regarding the sad state of affairs when it comes to math and science in this country. US twelfth graders math scores are among the lowest in the world.

I have two young boys, ages 3 and 5, and this has me worried. Does the United States teach math differently than other industrialized nations?

I have always struggled with higher-level math. For example, I took algebra a few times before it clicked. My husband is a whiz when it comes to math, but can't teach it to safe his life. I really hope that my husband doesn't have to be our kids math tutor. I can envision tears and frustration.

How can I assure that my kids are learning math, and enjoying it? I wouldn't even know if the math curriculum in our public school was appropriate.
posted by LoriFLA to Education (78 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Because, uh, they don't?*

* Addendum: the best and brightest from American private schools are as mathematically talented as the top kids in any other country. The problem starts when you look at the numbers for students as a whole. In which case, a more appropriate question might be, "Why do kids in private schools in New England do so much better in Math than kids in public schools in Compton?" And I think you already know the answer to that.

I wouldn't even know if the math curriculum in our public school was appropriate.

It's not. It's awful, dreadful, approved-by-committee stuff that teaches for standardized tests.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:48 AM on July 15, 2006

I'm of Indian descent born and raised in the US. I have excellent math skills and my younger sister struggles a bit (even though she's the scientist and I'm the liberal arts guy). More than anything, I believe that doing well in math is a consequence of understanding and appreciating its importance in the world. I don't believe that Americans are taught at an early age that math has applications in every facet of life (and I mean everything).

Indians, Chinese, and many other up-and-coming developing nations understand the importance and practicality of math and science and force their children into these fields. Americans don't have this same drive. They allow their kids to pick and choose their experiences and careers. It's a double edged sword. Freedom is great, but it costs us valuable manufacturing and innovative jobs.

I think that teachers might pick up on this slightly and perhaps lower their expectations, but the true blame here is parents failing to engrain in their children a love and appreciation for math. And it's a vicious cycle. The parents probably weren't great at math either, so they have even less incentive to nurture their kids into having an appreciation.

As a practical piece of advice, incorporate math into more conversations with your kids to show its relevance. Talk to them about probabilities, fractions, and simple word problems to create a passion for the material. If you think about it, the more you talk to your kids about fashion, the more they'll think that clothes and style are important. Same with politics, same with anything really. Show that you have an appreciation and show why (without lecturing them) math is everywhere.
posted by SeizeTheDay at 8:57 AM on July 15, 2006

Math is very lovable if it's taught by people who love it. It's almost entirely taught by people who hate it.

I spent my teacher training among students who are now elementary school teachers. All but a handful of them brayed the whole time about how much they hated math, how they were dreading teaching it, about how they'd just hold their noses and get through it the best they can.

Wanna guess how they teach now? They see no joy or beauty in it. They teach it mechanically, as a horrible task to be gotten through. They don't try to kindle a flame about math in their students because they've never had that flame lit in themselves.

I imagine (to channel Philip Larkin for a moment) that these teachers themselves had teachers who felt nothing but dread and disgust about math. And so that math aversion gets handed on and the love of math rarely does

It's just a legacy, a negative one, handed from one generation to another.

(Incidentally, what do you love about math? Try starting from that.)
posted by argybarg at 9:11 AM on July 15, 2006 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't even know if the math curriculum in our public school was appropriate.

By the way, although I understand this concern, I think it's based on a misunderstanding. There is a general perception that the correct curriculum, purchased wisely, will induce math. Only the teacher can do that.
posted by argybarg at 9:14 AM on July 15, 2006

Math is very lovable if it's taught by people who love it. It's almost entirely taught by people who hate it.

This is totally true. My math grades were always directly related to the passion of the person teaching it to me.
posted by sweetkid at 9:16 AM on July 15, 2006

Is it a question of having a wider testing pool here in the US?

I think other countries might engage in more aggressive tracking than American schools. Perhaps there are students in the testing pool in America who, had they lived in Europe, would have been encouraged to go to trade school instead.
posted by jason's_planet at 9:18 AM on July 15, 2006

Via an online dating service, I met for a coffee date a high school English teacher last month. She has a PhD in Creative Writing and is head of her department. We got to talking about my college education (Great Books, classic liberal arts) and the very heavy math/science component of it, which most people don't expect.

She asked me, "Why is learning Math important? Why does it matter?" Not in the interest of discussion, but because she clearly was frustrated by the idea that it mattered and should be taught to everyone.

That's indirectly an answer to your question.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 9:20 AM on July 15, 2006

Why do children in the United States perform so poorly in math?

Compared to kids in other countries, I guess, and not, say, poorly in comparison to cats? The answer is: homework, homework, homework. There are lots of ways to learn, lots of ways to teach, lots of people and things (teachers, methods, budgets, etc.) to blame for failure to learn, but only one way to get really good at anything, which is to spend a lot of time doing a lot of work. American kids (and cats, for that matter) don't work very hard compared to kids in some other countries.

For example, ask Stavros about kids in South Korea:
In Korea, from middle school through the end of high school, most children, if they have any intention at all of going on to university, which more than 80% do, get an average of 4 to 5 hours a night, if they're lucky. It's insane, but it's a simple fact that tells a great deal about Korea and its people, and is the root of the myth of the superiority of the Korean student, when they go overseas. They're no better -- they just work like bastards, driven by their pathologically competitive parents and a society that demands that level of grind merely to keep up.
If there aren't enough hours in the day for the homework required, you'll have to cut some other stuff. TV would be a good place to start cutting back. Let your boys watch anything they want to watch from now until they graduate -- but for just one hour a day, seven hours a week, which is pretty much a full work day per week anyway. Or if it's simply high grades you want, let them buy TV time with high grades. C or lower = 0 hours. B = 0.5 hours a day. A = 1.0 hour a day. Something like that. Get the report cards, add up the grades, and that's how much TV they can watch until the next report card. (Or if their big wasters of time are instead the internet or video games, do it for those things.)

Also, math is a very cumulative skill. Concentrate on the basics early in their education and they will have a relatively easy time later on.
posted by pracowity at 9:22 AM on July 15, 2006

I think there definitely is a double standard as far as math appreciation goes. One of the few things I really picked up after reading John Allen Paulos' book Innumeracy was the way we'll accept perfectly intelligent people shrugging and remarking "Oh, I'm just terrible at math.", much more readily than the same person stating "Oh, I'm terrible at reading."
posted by redsparkler at 9:29 AM on July 15, 2006

Don't forget that many of the nations we are compared to have a different educational set-up. In the US, basically every student of any ability, those destined for college and those not, are part of our "12th grade." But in many nations, children are separated out into different tracks. It might give the impression that American students are less skilled, while in reality, we are comparing a broad slice of our student population with a narrow slice of other countries'. For a general idea of how some other countries organize their secondary theeducational systems, check out the Wikipedia article on Secondary education in France.

I think an important question is: How, if our high schools are so bad, does the US have the best universities in the world? I think there is no doubt that our education system needs serious reform, and that we need to look to countries such as France for guidance. But I think that sometimes the case against our schools is exaggerated. At least in the fields of math, science, and technology, we are stronger than most people think. (Although in history, geography, etc, I suspect that we are much worse.)
posted by yesno at 10:05 AM on July 15, 2006 [1 favorite]

If you have to work 4-5 hours a night to get math, there's massive inefficiency in the way you're teaching it.

I think that experiencing that math is both useful and beautiful -- that it makes things happen in a miraculous way -- is a huge deal. Most people never do experience that. Once they do, they'll work hard to extend that experience, especially the beautiful products of their work become of use to other people.

In other words, there must be a positive feedback loop in the life of the student. It must be an authentic one (i.e., not doing math gets you pizza or free-time hours as a reward). More like: master this practice in math unlocks this new ability, which, when mastered, unlocks more. The effect is greatly amplified if the work you produce in all this is of use to other people.

This ought to be the basic mode in education, but it isn't. Instead it's loads of drills, coercion and no point. Practicing that same mode with more intensity seems like a bad and dangerous path to me.
posted by argybarg at 10:08 AM on July 15, 2006

(yikes. I can't shut up.)

The heart of the question is: Is there anything you find beautiful or useful about math? If not, and you can't find anything, don't teach it to your children. It's worse than not teaching them at all.
posted by argybarg at 10:09 AM on July 15, 2006

I don't know. When I was a kid we moved around a bit and I went to a (private, very good) American school in Morocco for grade 2, 3, and the first few months of grade 4. Then we moved back to Holland, and I continued grade 4 there. Despite having done extra credit math work at my American school, I was almost a year behind in math... Everyone at my Dutch school already knew how to multiply fractions, and that was only at the end of my American grade 4 math book.
posted by easternblot at 10:14 AM on July 15, 2006

Children will raise or lower their performance to the expectation of their teachers and family. There was a study done on this in 1968 (called the Pygmalion Effect). Basically, a group of kids was chosen at random, taken aside and put in a special class they were told was reserved for the exceptionally bright. Lo and behold, a few months later the kids are all excelling.

A lot of this has to do with the generally low regard most Americans hold for intellectual discipline, starting at a very early age. Words like "nerd" or "dork" or "brainiac" wouldn't even exist if it wasn't for this general disdain Americans have over book-learnen' and its practioners.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:33 AM on July 15, 2006 [3 favorites]

Earlier this year I read an interesting book called something like "Making Sense of Research in Education." (I'd link to it, but I'm obviously not remembering it correctly because I have just spent five minutes I can't really spare trying to find it on Amazon and in my own records with various keywords.)

The book looked at common stories in the news about things like Americans doing worse than everybody else on standardized tests given internationally, for instance, and then looked into the research behind them. Yesno's point that education systems are very different is a good one; this book talked about the higher level of tracking at early ages in other countries, for instance--that is, kids without certain aptitudes don't stay in the academic track as commonly as they do here.

Another point was that the US and Canada were often the only countries to provide actual random national samples for international testing. So the entire population of American students is being compared against individual schools--or in some places, individual students--who were selected to take the tests.

Also, as has been touched on before, the results were very different if American students were divided by race. So, for instance, on one test of math skills, if just white American high schoolers had been a country of their own, they'd have been second or third of the countries ranked. But African-American and Hispanic American students? 26 or 27 out of 27. That points to a serious problem with American education, but a different problem than was being reported.

I'm going to second argybarg, too, in saying that one thing schools are very good at is creating hatred and fear of math through forced instruction separated from authentic experience and results. Better not to teach math at all than to make kids hate and fear it.

And now, back to the student essays I've been avoiding grading by jumping in on this thread.
posted by not that girl at 10:34 AM on July 15, 2006

Response by poster: Thank you for all of these interesting and informative answers.

If students take a vocational track in other countries, and aren't tested, that explains a lot. I am afraid I don't live in New England, nor do we have any private schools around us with a good reputation for academics.

I agree that our country doesn't necessarily place an importance on math. I know so many people that freely admit that they suck at math.

I wish I didn't suck at math. I want to take the GRE, but I have serious doubts that I can pass the math portion.

My husband and I (especially husband) often make little games out of math and try to talk about it. We do little word problems all the time, and count down the numbers on the microwave, stuff like that. My three-year old can count objects up to 14-15. He isn't just reciting numbers. He can recite his ABC's but doesn't really know what the alphabet is.

I am afraid I don't enjoy math all that much. I am not really good at it (I would never tell my kids this). I can do math for medications. I sew drapes and clothes for fun, so I can read a ruler, and add and subtract fractions. I like to count money, and I love when my dress size decreases. :) That is about it. I do plant my rose bushes and flowers in odd-numbered groups. I should explain to my boys why I do this. That would be fun. I am going to make an effort to incorporate more talk about math in a fun and interesting way. I will bring this up to my husband too, and encourage him to incorporate more math in everyday conversation.

I would love to hear more.
posted by LoriFLA at 10:37 AM on July 15, 2006

I agree that the biggest problem is that most teachers hate math. They combine lifeless presentation with extremely low expectations, and the students pick up on this. I've taken many math classes where it was clear that neither the students nor the teachers expected anyone to actually learn anything. The result was that everyone got A's, and the next class in the sequence basically repeated the same material.

So one way you can tell if your children's classes are serving them well, is if you see them repeating the same subject matter, or if they tell you that they already know what they're covering in class.

I don't think that U.S. universities are the best in the world anymore. Sure, we have Harvard and MIT, and such; but once you get to public universities, the schools are primarily pumping through customers (who are often already several years behind). We still do have the best graduate schools ---because we have so much money. We hire the best researchers, and our labs are the best-funded. Tons of foreigners come here for graduate school, and they typically kick ass.

You can take advantage of this though. Since college is often concerned with teaching things that probably could have been learned in high school, you can pay for your kids to take classes at a local community college. I know people who've done this, and they definitely learned their math (there's really no need to restrict this to math either).
posted by Humanzee at 10:37 AM on July 15, 2006

Oh, and I should mention that you don't have to wait until high school for community college classes. They'll almost certainly have algebra classes, and other things that can (and should) start before high school.
posted by Humanzee at 10:40 AM on July 15, 2006


The first step is the give up the "I suck at math" thing. People hold on to this, perversely, with a sort of pride. Lose it. You haven't connected with math yet, that's all. You might, under the right circumstances.

The Man Who Counted: A Mathematical Adventure is an oddball intro to math, but it does profess (and demonstrate) its beauty quite effectively. The works of Martin Gardner have lots of tricky and fascinating stuff in them. Biographies of mathematicians or essays on math are a fascinating way in.

The point is, you have to open your heart to math despite your fears and defenses (which I assume the experience of school built up in you). If you just drill your student mechanically in math, or struggle to make it "entertaining" when you think it isn't, they'll know you hate it and they'll hate it too.
posted by argybarg at 10:47 AM on July 15, 2006 [1 favorite]

Pracowity has it. The four hours of TV most American kids watch daily puts Korean homework into a better perspective.

It's all in the expectations. If you, like most American parents, expect your kid to read, you will... buy him books, get him a library card, read in front of him, read to him, etc. If you expect him to do math, show it. When they were little, I'd show them a handful of change, and they could have it if they could tell me how much it was. Or I'd buy them an ice cream if they could calculate how long I worked to get the money for it -- lots of built-in incentives with money math. Now my son gives me problems to solve.
posted by Methylviolet at 10:47 AM on July 15, 2006 [2 favorites]

Keep in mind that all of these studies are done pre-university. I can't find a source right now, but I've heard and believe that post-university, the discrepancy is pretty much gone. argybarg wrote:

If you have to work 4-5 hours a night to get math, there's massive inefficiency in the way you're teaching it.

Having studied in Japan and taught in Taiwan, I'd say there is some massive inefficiency. There's way too much rote memorization going on in grade school education throughout Asia. Asian kids generally learn the basics of math much better than their American counterparts, but once they get into the more advanced areas in university, they're both burnt out and lacking the necessary critical thinking skills, so they go slower while American students catch up.

My personal theory is that this is all rooted in the difference between phonetic and pictographic writing systems.
posted by scottreynen at 10:56 AM on July 15, 2006

I'm now a junior in college and it still takes me a good amount of time to compute semi-complex data. None of my teachers throughout grade school took the subject (math) seriously (I was in an affluent public school system in the US). I was in the accelerated track, too! Now, in college, I have to force myself to (re)learn the basics of algebra 2 in order to get through seemingly easy subjects like statistics.

IMO, the US elementary and secondary school system focuses more on verbal subjects (ie: English), than they do with the math and sciences.
posted by drkrdglo at 10:59 AM on July 15, 2006

And Lori -- why don't you take a math class at community college?

I sucked at math. Starting in middle school, I took Algebra I six times before I passed it. But I was a Bio major, so I had to get through Calculus II. And when I got to calculus, suddenly it all made sense. Everything that had seemed arbitrary to me was part of a cohesive whole. If you haven't got that far yourself, you're missing out on something really amazing and beautiful -- it's like learning to spell, but never learning to read.
posted by Methylviolet at 11:00 AM on July 15, 2006

In addition to much of what everyone else is saying, I've heard that Americans are much more likely to think of math as some sort of inherent skill, rather than something that needs to be worked on.

So an American parent will see that his kid's not doing very well in math and might say, "Oh, well, I guess you're just not that strong in math," while a Chinese parent might say, "Why aren't you working harder, then?"

It goes along with expectations, but it's a slightly more psychological twist. If you're willing to excuse your kids for not having math skills, due in part to the "we're all special snowflakes" American mentality, then the kids not as likely to do the work required to get good in math.

(And I love the idea of showing your kids how you use math, Lori -- mainly because the feminist in me gets so annoyed when the math and science required for things like sewing, cooking, or gardening are dismissed as "not really math," because they're girl things and all.)
posted by occhiblu at 11:09 AM on July 15, 2006

This paper (PDF) is about programming, but it makes a case that a sizable portion of the population Just Can't Get It no matter how it's explained. Of course, they were trying to teach college students, which may be too late. Perhaps math is like language, where it shuts off after a certain age, but on the other hand, math beyond arithmetic does require a certain level of abstract thinking that young kids don't have. So it may indeed be the case that some people just are bad at math.

People usually overestimate their ability, so I guess it's good that people who can't do math know they can't do math.
posted by kindall at 11:11 AM on July 15, 2006

"... The point is, you have to open your heart to math despite your fears and defenses (which I assume the experience of school built up in you). ..."
posted by argybarg at 1:47 PM EST on July 15

I couldn't agree with argybarg more. There's a wonderful passage in an older American novel from the 1930's by Sinclair Lewis entitled Arrowsmith, where the young Martin Arrowsmith is admonished by his mentor professor Dr. Gottlieb about his poor math skills, which Gottlieb sees as an excuse holding Arrowsmith back from a career as a researcher. Arrowsmith comes to see Gottlieb's point, and hires himself a tutor to "get his mathematics." As he doggedly sets about actually learning math to use it for his own purposes, he discovers to his amazement, the deep power and beauty of math in itself, and not merely as an applied tool.

This, you must do for yourself, to change your children's view of the subject. You must love learning enough to try yourself what you do not perceive as "natural" or easy for you. Hire a math tutor. Do your algebra, out where your children can see. Solve some trig identities, so you can, with confidence. Come to calculus, first from Leibniz's path, and then from Newton's.

You'll learn much more than math. You'll discover your own mind, afresh.
posted by paulsc at 11:12 AM on July 15, 2006

Here's another perspective, as someone who's in their 30s and is dying to self-teach trig and calculus on limited free time.

Generally what I find at Borders, Amazon, etc are:
1. Very dry & expensive course books, or
2. Math history books, which teach much more about Pythagoras than polynomials.

The rest of the stuff on the 'net is better but very poorly organized.

So there it is, from one perspective. No one on the outside has made it interesting, or has been well-published. Maybe it just can't be made interesting.
posted by zek at 11:15 AM on July 15, 2006

How Children Fail is essential reading.

There's also the public/private thing. American private schools are among the best in the world, whereas American public schools are actually worse than no schools at all.
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 11:16 AM on July 15, 2006

I loved math and was really good at it till about 9th grade (first year of geometry), and then I hit a wall, which I kept hitting against for the next two years (2nd year algebra, then trig). At the time, I assumed it was all mental -- that I had just reached the limit of what my more liberal-artsy brain could do. But looking back now I realize that the teachers I had up through 8th grade tended to be really and engaging about math --- I felt challenged but also supported in their classes. The math teachers I had in 9th-11th grade were much dryer and less supportive -- if you didn't get it, then you were holding the rest of the class back, Miss Scody! So mentally I think I sort of froze, and then started to resent it, then made a deal with my parents that I could quit stupid hateful math after I took the SATs. (The punchline being that after all that, I actually got a higher math than verbal score.)
posted by scody at 11:25 AM on July 15, 2006

A lot of good points so far. I know that most of the problem with math education in US public schools is not just lack of enthusiasm or passion on the part of the teacher, but also how we teach math here as well. A good friend is a math teacher, and she's a brilliant one--but she absolutely detests every single textbook option (high school) available to her, and ends up using several books and sort of cobbling together her own method.

According to her, many math teachers are frustrated about this, but have not been able to organize into a potent enough political block to get the pedagogy and materials changed--apparently there is a fair sized contingent among math educators who even disagree with the way the specific subjects are grouped--i.e., algebra, geometry, etc.; and that they are most definitely taught in the wrong sequence. (She thinks that algebra before geometry is ludicrous, IIRC.)

Further, in many Asian systems, math is not taught by rote, but rather by doing. So, a teacher presents a challenge and the students then have to devise ways to solve it--apparently learning math by discovery is especially effective. (I wouldn't know, I'm one of the math-deficient, mainly thanks to crappy, boring, bored teachers, one after another, for a dozen years or so.)

I wish I didn't suck at math. I want to take the GRE, but I have serious doubts that I can pass the math portion.

Much less daunting than you think. Get the Princeton Review--they break down the kinds of problems on the GRE, and show you great tricks to solve them quickly and consistently.

hoverboards don't work on water: ...whereas American public schools are actually worse than no schools at all.

Though I have TONS of critical things to say about American public schools, that's more than a little over the top. (The only reason I mention it is because it's an important issue ill-served by hyperbole.)
posted by LooseFilter at 11:43 AM on July 15, 2006

I think there are lots of good points here and wanted to add this: at least for me, a person who is relatively good at math, elementary school-level math was absolute torture. It is almost bound to be a bad situation; you probably aren't going to get teachers who love math teaching it at the elementary-school level, because quite frankly the basics are boring and good math teachers are scarce. So you have the first experience most kids have with math taught by teachers who aren't crazy about the subject and to top it all off, all you're learning is the most tedious aspects of arithmetic, the ones that require a lot of rote learning and quickly become of questionable real-world value. Real math is a whole different beast, one that requires much much more than the ability to hold numbers in one's head.
Perhaps if elementary schools mixed their math in with more logic puzzles and problem-solving of that sort (I honest to god wish that we started introducing basic concepts of statistics to grade-schoolers) the association of "math" with "pointless tedium" would diminish. Then, by the time students were learning the more abstract and useful topics of math, hopefully they would not be so negative about the whole thing.
So, the best recourse I think you have is to give your kids fun logic puzzles to solve and associate those fun puzzles with "math". And I nth the suggestion to severely limit TV. Not that it will make them good at math, but it will almost certainly make them better students (my parents did the same thing to me in middle school, I went from a b-c student to a straight-a student in a year).
posted by ch1x0r at 12:27 PM on July 15, 2006

Though I have TONS of critical things to say about American public schools, that's more than a little over the top. (The only reason I mention it is because it's an important issue ill-served by hyperbole.)

How Children Fail is a book specifically about how mathematics teaching fails, and specifically about how it fails in the USA. That public schools are worse than nothing is chilling, controversial, and, I will grant you, highly arguable, but it is nevertheless an accurate summary of the book, for those who can't read it.
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 12:30 PM on July 15, 2006

Successful math students are disciplined and diligent. Other countries do discipline and diligence better than the United States.
posted by crazycanuck at 12:44 PM on July 15, 2006

This isn't strictly related to the original question (sorry, LoriFLA!) but I want to refute some of the comments that are being made about the superiority of private schools.

From the New York Times:
"The Education Department reported on Friday [yesterday!] that children in public schools generally performed as well or better in reading and mathematics than comparable children in private schools. The exception was in eighth-grade reading, where the private school counterparts fared better."

Private schools are not inherently superior. Many of them use the same curricula that public schools do and, because of laws that allow this to be so, many of their teachers did not posses the basic teaching qualifications required by public schools.

It's useful to note that the aforementioned study examined "comparable" groups of public and private school students. Though I can't find the report at ed.gov, I imagine that what they are referring to is students of similar socieconomic backgrounds. Any surface different between public and private schools can likely be attributed to the disproportionate resources available to students in the latter. Numerous studies have shown that the single greatest predictor of a child's performance in school is the education level of its parents. Parents with higher levels of education are more likely to have the ability to send their children to private school. When these inequalities are controlled for, we see that the schools themselves make little difference.
posted by chickletworks at 12:56 PM on July 15, 2006

As someone who just went through K-12, math is one of those classes that people either had an affinity for or didn't. Except for a very few people, almost no one liked math; some were quite good at it, and that seemed to build exponentially as time went on (those who were good at algebra were great at calculus, for example).

The big issue, I think, is that math in the US is taught to the lowest common denominator. If there's 10 people that don't give a shit, 20 people that are alright with it, and 10 people that could be 6 chapters ahead (yes, our class had over 40 people), the class will be taught to the 10 that don't give a shit. So, in turn, they realize that they can not give a shit and still pass the class. So they do.
posted by devilsbrigade at 1:15 PM on July 15, 2006

i've been under the general impression that in terms of larger policy, the public schools are growing more intentionally 'worse than nothing' toward the goal of having the system privatized...i'm not sure where i got that impression--perhaps around the whole school voucher debate--or if it is accurate to any degree...

i was always good and math and was engaged with it, but even so, despite the day-to-day applications of a certain level of knowledge, much of stuff learned over the years I find useful only very sporadically, if at all...so if generally the knowledge is not reinforced by everyday experience (compared to, say, reading and grammar) i think it's understandable that it would be less valued...

...my questions would be whether math education--if it hasn't already--should shift away from the building a set of skills that can be (and is more commonly now) turned over to technology and instead focus on big-picture understanding of the concepts (like, say, a calculus course that teaches the concepts but not the computation); and whether the math level at which we teach/test at a core level is really beyond what is necessary for general education...
posted by troybob at 1:16 PM on July 15, 2006

I'm in high school (in an affluent suburb, taking advanced classes) so I have some recent experience with what math is like in public schools. Reading this discussion, it occurred to me that the way I've been taught science and the way I've been taught math are very different. In elementary school, math was boring and rote and science was fun and exciting. My teachers didn't like math (probably because they were elementary school teachers, expected to be able to teach everything) but a few managed to make science exciting. My middle school science teachers were great; they extended what we were talking about and got us involved in discussions about science. My math teachers were more likely to stick to the books (which were terrible). In high school, so far, it's been more of the same. As a result I love chemistry and am excited about physics, but I couldn't give less of a shit about pre cal. If math people, people who enjoy math and love it like some of the people in this thread do, taught math, maybe I would care more.
posted by MadamM at 1:19 PM on July 15, 2006

Children perform up or down to our expectations. Most of your children's teachers will be people who never really learned math because they weren't expected to.

You can help your kids by advocating for them to get the best teachers in school, and/or tutors who do know about math. Ask the principal about the backgrounds of the teachers and make them uncomfortable if all the science and math is being taught by English majors. If you have a university or college nearby they might have programs for kids. Some places have summer camps for science instruction (even if your children don't get turned on to math itself, if they like science they will see the necessity of learning math) and great books about science for kids abound - talk to your local children's bookstore or librarian.

I like the ideas above about incorporating conversation about the usefulness of math into your everyday interactions.

You can also get some great books about math aimed at kids their age, to help get them excited about math and to counter the rote-ness of a lot of elementary school math teaching:
  • City 1 2 3 by Zoran Milich: counting book for ages 2 to 6 (really wonderful illustrations).
  • Moira's Birthday by Robert Munsch
  • The Greedy Triangle and Spaghetti And Meatballs For All by Marilyn Burns: picture books for ages 4 to 8.
  • Too Many Eggs: A Counting Book by M. Christina Butler: ages 4 to 8: Unable to count properly, Mrs. Bear uses too many eggs in Mr. Bear's birthday cake with amazing results. The reader can help Mrs. Bear count using sheets of press-out eggs and putting them in the basket and mixing bowl pictured in the book.
  • Bunches and Bunches of Bunnies by Louise Mathews: multiplication, ages 4 to 8.
  • The King's Chessboard by David Birch: From Publishers Weekly: The story itself is a parable about a powerful king and a wise man whose simple request - a grain of rice doubled for each square of the king's chessboard - proves to be an impossible challenge for the royal granary. A amusing scenario unfolds as the amount of rice multiplies daily, causing great curiosity among the villagers and embarrassment to the prideful king, who learns a valuable lesson. Ages 5-up.
  • Jim Haskins has a whole series of counting books that are also about geography, called Count Your Way Through [the country].
  • 12 Ways to Get to 11 by Eve Merriam (no relation, afaik).
  • One Hundred Hungry Ants, Inchworm and a Half and A Remainder of One by Elinor J. Pinczes
  • The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster: This was one of my favourites. It's too old for them now (Amazon says ages 9 to 12, but I think a bright 7 year old would be fine) but I'd pick it up anyway, and maybe read it to them at night, or just keep it on hand. It's really quite wonderful.
  • The Kids Guide to Money Cent$ by Keltie Thomas: What exactly is money? Why do we need it? What is it worth to you? Join the Money cent$ Gang to take a quiz to reveal your money personality, find out how to get the best deals when you shop, how to start your own business, and how to spot counterfeit bills. Nominated for the 2006 Hackmatack Award. This is also too old for them right now (it's for elementary school aged kids) but might be good one to pick up now while you are motivated.

posted by joannemerriam at 1:39 PM on July 15, 2006 [2 favorites]

I agree with the passionless teachers. I taught a technology course to seventh graders who routinely thought that 3/5 = 3.5 or .35. My material required that my students had to be up on fractions and decimals. One thing I saw was students who were glued to calculators and honestly couldn't perform basic tasks without them. I taught them tools and tricks for doing math without a calculator or even without pen and paper. One of my favorite object lessons was to calculate averages in my head and race a kid with a calculator. When put into a fun context, you can wake the interest in your students.

9th graders I taught to count in binary on their fingers. You do that with the promise at the beginning that they would be allowed to give me the finger in class (only while doing math), then you get a hook. Inevitably I'd get 2 kids in a class who would "get" that just by learning this, they could count to 31 on one hand and could see how they could benefit from it immediately. The others - well, at least they were exposed to it and it might come back to them later.

The point is that to do this kind of teaching takes a huge amount of energy and passion, which is hard to generate, let alone to sustain. I also saw kids who refused to take Calculus in high school because they would get a better grade for less work in a fluffier class. That was unheard of in my HS.
posted by plinth at 1:42 PM on July 15, 2006

Public education in the USA is broken. It's broken because of bad priorities, which are related to the management of public money.

Send your kids to private school.
posted by ikkyu2 at 2:10 PM on July 15, 2006

I know quite a few people in my age group (I'm 26) who are fantastic at math. I'm not one of them. I was never able to really grasp concepts in math, and I know it's not because I'm dumb. I just think differently. For instance, I see everything as multiples of fives and tens, and then subtract or add the units necessary to get to the right answer - so, in my brain, 12*3 = (10*3)+[(12-10)*3] = 36. Clearly it takes me a little longer to get to the right answer, but I do get it.

In fourth grade, my math teacher told me I was stupid. My parents pulled me out of parochial (private) school at the end of the year. When I was enrolled in public school, I was immediately placed into gifted classes for every subject except math (and later in high school, every subject except math and science). I had brilliant, committed, wonderful math teachers that spent significant amounts of their own time tutoring me before and after school. The best among them figured out how I reason and exploited that. To this day, I know that is the only reason I was able to get an A in Geometry. Because of these tenacious teachers, I ended up with a degree in Finance (and Marketing), and I'm now going back to school for my MBA. You can be successful and be just OK at math.

It was quite difficult for my parents to accept that I understood things differently - it's not quite a learning disability but it did hamper my math education - so they enrolled my younger brother and I (for solidarity, I suppose - he never had much difficulty with math) in the Kumon math program. It really and truly helped my brother to become much more at ease and competent in his math skills. My parents pulled us out of the program once my brother (four years behind me in school) was three levels ahead of me in Kumon.

Lori - though it didn't work for me, I recommend it to you as I recall there being a great number of young children in the class - preschool age and younger. You may wish to look into it - if there is a center near you, perhaps you want to enroll your kids in it. Then, neither you nor your husband tutor your kids.
posted by MeetMegan at 2:22 PM on July 15, 2006

My personal theory is that this is all rooted in the difference between phonetic and pictographic writing systems.

No, not really. Malaysia and Singapore mainly use the Roman alphabet and they too have the same rote-memorization, burn-out-at-higher-levels, overworked-students problem. I personally don't know why so many people keep thinking the Asian system works; it only turns students into robots.

I was in Malaysian schools for most of my life. Supposedly a "premier" school. And we had the same system many others have described above. (Except we don't learn things by "discovery". It's all spoonfed.) No consideration of students' welfare, no independence, no critical thinking (their idea of critical thinking is "what's in the score sheet")...and by the end of it all, barely anyone remembers what they learnt because the exam's over and so the purpose of learning it is gone.
posted by divabat at 2:27 PM on July 15, 2006

I second everyone who has said - Don't tell your children you are bad at math. I used to do a lot of tutoring and the majority of students whose parents said they were bad at math would put no effort into working on their math homework and always questioned what the point of math was.

The one thing that I think helped me enjoy math was that I knew my basic skills really well. I never took Kumon math or did the 4-5 hours of homework a day but math was definitely incoorporated into my toys/video games. I had toys like speak and math (same as speak and spell but with math) and computer games with timed math problems. I never thought I was doing "homework" even though it had the same effect. So, for me, learning basic math skills was kind of fun. It also meant that by the time I was learning how to multiply fractions in school integer multiplication part didn't slow me down and I could focus on learning what fractions were. And, of course, being better at math then most of my fellow students made me enjoy it even more :).

I taught English in Taiwan for a while and the seven year old students in my class had amazing arithmetic skills. Every so often we would try and work out an arithemetic problem on the board during a break between classes. The students would do the problem while sitting at their desks and I would do it on the board. They would inevitably beat me every time (and it's pretty humbling to be laughed at for being slow at math by a seven year old - especially when you have a degree in math and physics) They tried to explain to me how they multiplied but it was never very clear to me. The reason that these kids were so good at math was because they went to night school for two - three every day (yes at seven). At night school they were learning chinese, learning basic math, and learning how to play the violin. (Although, for the record, they could not catch a ball to save their life). So it makes sense that students in Taiwan would do better on math tests then students in the US.

As to whether or not the school your child is attending has a good math program - go and speak with the teacher and decide whether or not the teacher is interested in math. If they are not interested, it probably doesn't matter what is in the curriculm. Ask them if they have suggestions for different games/puzzles you can give your children that will help them improve at math. And please don't send your kids to private school. The public school system needs concerned parents like you!
posted by kechi at 3:12 PM on July 15, 2006

speak and math

Speak and Math was so awesome. My sister recently got one on ebay and it is still awesome after all these years.
posted by ch1x0r at 3:17 PM on July 15, 2006

ikkyu2: Public education in the USA is broken. It's broken because of bad priorities, which are related to the management of public money.

You may have missed Chickletworks link above. Whatever problems we have with math education in America, there is no significant difference between public and private schools. This is coming from Bush's own Education Department, a strong proponent of private schooling.
posted by JackFlash at 3:39 PM on July 15, 2006

I am afraid I don't live in New England, nor do we have any private schools around us with a good reputation for academics.

You should relocate so your children can go to a good public or private school. Also, as chickletworks pointed out, don't assume a school is good just because it is a private school. Research schools.

This may sound drastic. But as far as I know it's pretty necessary. You may stay in a so-so or bad school district and hope that your children might be smart enough to overcome a bad education, or you may move to a good school district or near a good private school (and then enroll your children there) so that you know they will have a good education.

A good education in math will roughly follow that, although you should still do your homework on the teachers and the schools' test scores. See what kind of results they can produce in SAT, SAT-2 and AP tests.

Also, consider that fun and interest are bad as sole or even primary motivators or justifications for learning. At some point, learning math or any other subject is going to turn into a grinding, unpleasant slog. Have your children understand that it is not fun and games all the time, and that nobody's going to die if it isn't for a while, or maybe even ever. Don't let it be torture, but children (people, really) should work hard and do well at their work not primarily because it's fun or interesting, but because that is what mature and responsible people do.

That having been said, my parents are Taiwanese and I did recite multiplication tables to 10 x 10 every day in the summer before third grade, and that's how I learned multiplication. I agree that division and fractions are much easier if you know the tables cold. Later in high school my father tutored me in algebra, trigonometry, and calculus. Regarding education levels: he has a Master's degree in engineering.

I'll give one caveat to the case of the math teacher that loves math: loving math plus a teaching credential (plus even an advanced degree in math) doesn't make one able to teach math.
posted by halonine at 3:43 PM on July 15, 2006

Math and reading are two subjects that are different from most in that they are cumulative. Basic math is required for algebra, which is required for geometry, which is required for trigonometry, pre-calc, calculus, etc. Subjects like history and biology are relatively self-contained. You can study American history and European history independently, to a large extent.

People learn math at different rates. Forcing them into a grade and age based curriculum doesn't work. Trying to teach algebra to a person still struggling with fractions and reciprocals is guaranteed to fail. A better system might be to have independent math study units to replace text books. You finish one unit, you go on to the next. Each person progresses at their own pace. Some may finish high school with calculus and some may finish with only rudimentary algebra, but they would do it without all of the pressure of an artificial schedule.
posted by JackFlash at 3:52 PM on July 15, 2006

Scottreynen makes a very important point about pictographic writing: a carefully done recent study strongly implies native Chinese and English speakers typically show different regional patterns of brain activity in solving identical math problems.

I think this makes the recent move to adopt Taiwanese and Japanese methods of teaching math wholesale seem naive at best, but it also suggests that different brain organizations may respond optimally to different styles of math teaching. If your kid isn't doing so well, maybe he or she needs a different approach because their brain is different.

I imagine this will be hard to get into American public school curricula because we appear to feel that saying a persons brain works differently threatens our ideas about individual equality and, even worse, racial equality.
posted by jamjam at 5:09 PM on July 15, 2006

Whatever problems we have with math education in America, there is no significant difference between public and private schools.

Hogwash, with a twist.

Yes, a public school in an affluent suburb will likely have similar (high) standardized test results to a comparable private school. But do a comparison of test scores of varying public schools based on the property taxes of the school district and I think you'll be able to draw some pretty obvious conclusions.

If you value your children's intellectual development, and plan on staying in the United States, you must go where the money is. This usually means private school, but you can just as easily (which is to say, not very) move to a rich town and reap the same benefits. My parents chose this route, renting apartments and houses in wealthy towns my entire young life so that I'd be able to mix in with the rich kids and take part in all the goodies their property taxes were able to buy.

Fifty miles and a few economic rungs in the ladder away, kids at East Side High were seeing the flip side of the economic equation as it relates to public schooling. Don't even try and tell me all public schools are created equal. You could fertilize the planet with a pile of bullshit that large.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:13 PM on July 15, 2006

One thing that hasn't been said, and which I'm reluctant to bring up for various reasons, is that mathematics is a complex and greatly varied subject and should be taught differently for different purposes and to different personality types. And yet, even more than any other subject I can think of, mathematics through the first year or so of post-secondary school in the US is taught extremely uniformly as if it will be used in only one way and understood by only one kind of student.

There are technical/vocational reasons why teaching mathematics is necessary, and there are liberal arts reasons why teaching mathematics is necessary. These necessities vary relative to each other in the case of individual students and their vocational track and their temperment.

I've mentioned this elsewhere, and I'm sure some people tire of my mentioning of my alma mater, St. John's College, but the set curriculum there, built around the so-called "Great Books" and the classical liberal arts education includes four solid years of mathematics. Naturally, a large portion of students drawn to SJC are very humanities oriented, drawn especially to literature, and think of themselves as mathophobes. Mathematics can be especially challenging for them—certainly by the time they find themselves working through the Principia, or Einstein's Special Relativity paper, or whatever. But because the curriculum follows the historical progression of the development of western mathematics, and because the approach is very integrated with the philosophy involved—very strong on theory and context and weak on technique—something very interesting happens: a strong minority of these prior mathophobes find themselves falling in love with mathematics. In fact, it's not uncommon for a portion of these previously humanties-oriented students to leave the College to major in mathematics elsewhere. Nowhere else that have I seen, or am aware of, does this sort of transformation happen.

Now, I very strongly don't believe that this pedagogical approach to mathematics is appropriate everywhere or for every student. My point here is to provide one example of the startling effectiveness of an alternate pedagogical approach to mathematics which is quite different from the dry, technical progression that is typical of American education. For Johnnies, who have very strong liberal arts temperments, mathematics truly becomes a liberal art and is a very different subject than we've been taught elsewhere. The practical effect of this as I've observed Johnnies in other contexts has been that in grad school or professionally they are weak on technique (which is often all-important!), but are unusually strong on the underlying theory and often understand advanced mathematical concepts more thoroughly and quickly than other students. Often, but not always, because of this and through hard work, they can compensate for their technical weakness.

But in many contexts, mathematics is very much a tool and not a liberal art. An engineer does not need to be proficient in, say, number theory. But an engineer does need to be very proficient with his toolbox, which primarily includes mathematics. The same is true for many scientific disciplines (though for some, a deep intuitive comprehension of mathematics, not just technical proficience, can be very important). And there are various business disciplines which require strong technical proficiency in mathematics.

People have mentioned above how comparing the US's mathematics performance of students to that of other countries is problematic because many other countries seperate their students into "tracks" and the US, in general, does not. But it seems to me that this is relevant not just with regard to comparing apples to apples when talking about mathematics competency, but also is relevant to the deeper issue at hand: overall competency even when comparing apples to apples. My argument is that our trackless system forces a one-size-fits-all pedagogy on all our students, most particularly so with mathematics. And I argue that a result of this is that by and large all students are being poorly mathematically educated and thus it is the case that US students of mathematics are behind for all purposes.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 5:23 PM on July 15, 2006

My personal theory is that this is all rooted in the difference between phonetic and pictographic writing systems.

Chinese is a phonetic (albeit rather inefficiently phonetic) language.

I'm a teacher in Taiwan as well, and I can tell you that the education system here is crap. Sure, many of these kids have excellent math abilities, but they are far worse than American students in:

- history (Though this could be owing to Taiwan's rather unique geopolitical situation. They haven't made up their mind whether they are a nation yet, so they teach a half-assed version of someone else's history [China's] rather than their own. And you can forget about world history. None of my high school students knew who fought in WWII or where Hitler is from.)

- geography (Yes, it's even worse than those people who end up on those Jay Leno bits. Christ, I've got to teach my junior high students where the major cities in Taiwan are.)

- critical thinking skills (The single easiest way to confuse a Taiwanese student: ask them "Why?" If they haven't explicitly crammed it into their memory, they can't figure out the answer.)
posted by alidarbac at 6:25 PM on July 15, 2006

Civil_Disobedient: Don't even try and tell me all public schools are created equal. You could fertilize the planet with a pile of bullshit that large.

Nobody said anything of the kind. If you read the article, the study concluded that there is little difference in performance between public and private schools when you control for racial, economic and social backgrounds. This implies that the solution to problems in public schools is not necessarily simply to replace them with private schools.
posted by JackFlash at 6:51 PM on July 15, 2006

@Civil: did they tell the *students* they were supposed to be bright?

Cause I heard a thing last year where they split a year of kids (at random, which is the point), and told one group of *teachers* they were getting the exceptional kids.

Same result.
posted by baylink at 6:59 PM on July 15, 2006

Low expectations.

Combined with the dominant American fear of ever having a child feel bad about anything, hence rarely encouraging children to work on anything that may be beyond their ability and risking failure (and attendant low self esteem).
posted by chimaera at 7:27 PM on July 15, 2006

I don't really know if this is true but...

Because our school system tests everyone. Other school systems around the world seperate out the "trade school" kids from the "college prep" kids around jr. high/middle school ages and don't test the "twelfth grade" "trade school" kids... thus they have better math score averages.

I got a minor in mathematics, and I think I had fantastic math teachers in a region where the majority of the people really stink at math.

I had an awesome AP Calculus 1 and 2 high school teacher. Ended up getting college credit from that class. Very well worth it and it helped me land an excellent job after a good college education.

There were a lot of kids that graduated in the same class as me that had problems doing simple algebra. Our school system is messed up and needs a lot of work.
posted by nickerbocker at 7:36 PM on July 15, 2006

did they tell the *students* they were supposed to be bright?

You're absolutely correct: it was the teachers who were told the students they were getting were "gifted," not the students themselves.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:05 PM on July 15, 2006

A few weeks back I had the occasion to talk to a grade school principal. She told me over the course of the discussion that her school's scores were "good but not great", which I found refreshingly honest. She also told me she doesn't beleive in "drill and kill" nor does she beleive in "practice makes perfect." She was very proud of the math program used locally, called Everyday Math. It is a "spiral system" where concepts are touched upon, and then revisited at a higher level later. The principal looked me in the eye and said "We do not teach math to mastery." I thought to myself well maybe if you did, your test scores would be great, not good. A lot of people think Singapore Math is great, but I am similarly unimpressed with the results.

So there you have it. "American kids suck at math" because of lousy systems that "do not teach mastery" and because they have inadequate practice with concepts and mathematical facts before having to move on, only to revisit material they don't understand at a higher level later. Oh, and nobody stops to tell kids how any of this is relevant to daily life.

Seriously, if you want your kids to really truly master math, consider at least talking to the nice folks at your local Kumon office. Others have linked above so I won't be redundant. Kumon was developed by a high school math teacher (because his own son was doing poorly at grade school math) for the specific goal of preparing students for high school and college math. Yes, they have pre-school appropriate materials. For that matter they have a reading program (although for plain old fashioned phonics, I liked Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons).
posted by ilsa at 9:34 PM on July 15, 2006

re: GRE math

Math on the GRE is actually easier than the math on the SAT. No algebra, no geometry, no graphs. I don't think any of it is beyond a regular 6th grade level.

The difficulty comes from two factors: first, you cannot use a calculator. You will need to work problems like 11267 ÷ 56 using only a pencil and paper. This is something the 4th grader next door can do without difficulty, but will take you a bit of practice to get the hang of again. Secondly, the test is computer adaptive: no skipping problems, and the test adapts to what it believes is your score range. Get a Princeton Review prep book and spend some time practicing; they have good techniques to help you with fractions and ratios and all the other stuff your math teacher never explained properly.
posted by junkbox at 9:35 PM on July 15, 2006

I teach SAT prep in seoul, and whenever I have a student with sub-700 math scores, I can immediately guess that she's been in the US for more than 2 years.

They have a better system here, not straight arith -> alg -> geom -> trig -> precal -> calc -> stats , things are combined and taught by principles.

Also, parents, teachers, and students almost all care about education here. In a school class of 40-45 students in a Corean public school, maybe 2-3 kids don't care. Opposite in US, in my experience.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 10:59 PM on July 15, 2006

I'm surprised nobody's ever said that they didn't think their math instructors knew how to teach someone who didn't get it. I don't think the teachers I had hated math, but they had no idea what to do with me, someone who was lost on the first day of first grade 2+2 worksheets and continued that way ever since. I had hours and hours of personal teacher tutoring and it got nowhere with me. "Look at the example, now copy it" can only go so far. I'd follow PEMDAS and still get the wrong answer. I'm so glad nobody tried the "Figure it out for yourself" method on me or I would have flunked out immediately.

I was good in most other subjects, so I think it was assumed that I was just being yet another girl who was dumb at math. Though I do think I have dyscalculia, so that probably had something to do with it as well. (How do you teach the girl who canNOT remember what you taught her yesterday?) I never even heard of such a problem until I was long out of school, I just assumed I was a total mathematical moron. There's probably a good chunk of kids out there who are examples of perfect students EXCEPT for math classes who get told all the time they shouldn't be having such difficulties.
posted by jenfullmoon at 11:20 PM on July 15, 2006

I want to refute some of the comments that are being made about the superiority of private schools.

OK, let's take a look at the abstract of the study you cited.

Surely you won't mind if I quote directly from it:
In grades 4 and 8, using unadjusted mean scores, students in private schools scored significantly higher than students in public schools for both reading and mathematics.
The rest of the abstract explains how, when statistical methods were used to control for things like school location and disability status, the differences went away.

In general, controlling for confounding is a good thing. In this case, we believe that things like property values and being mentally retarded can influence the outcome of scores on the NAEP score that tests how well kids are learning in school. The study demonstrates that, yes, indeed this is true.

The corollaries of this finding as it relates to YOUR kids are left as an exercise for the reader. It's an exercise that's not particularly pleasant to perform, because it touches on sensitive class issues, discussion of which is so taboo as to be probably the last bastion of true obscenity in our culture.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:30 PM on July 15, 2006

I see your point now. You are saying that as things stand now, if you put YOUR kids in a private school, they may be better off. But the study implies that if we take all of the disadvantaged kids and put them in private schools, then the private schools will be just like the public schools. The conclusion is that private schools are not inherently better -- they just are a method for some people to flee from the disadvantaged. And the problem isn't that public schools are bad -- it is that public school students are disadvantaged. If we really want to solve these problems, we need to address the causative factors.
posted by JackFlash at 1:05 AM on July 16, 2006

Civil and Baylink - Along the same lines as the study you mentioned, there are studies that show that how you identify yourself changes how well you do on a test. In these studies Groups of students were given the same set of math tests. Some of the groups were asked to identify their gender. Other groups were not asked about their gender. The results showed that in the group that was asked to identify their gender, women preformed worse then the men, in the group that was not asked to identify their gender there was no significant difference in performance between men and women. Similar results are obtained when people are asked to identify their ethnicity.
posted by kechi at 1:37 AM on July 16, 2006

I work at a small company who requires every applicant to take a short math test, regardless of the position being aplied for. Our company president believes the amount of basic math knowledge it takes to pass this test is a good indicator that the person will make it in the workplace.

They will give people 2 chances (lucky for me!) but it's never been circumvented, to my knowledge, even if the rest of the person's abilites were significant. He's just a stickler. No math test, no job.

There is no time limit, and you can miss a couple and still make it. But for every 10 who take the test, only 1-2 will pass it. I am embarassed to say how basic it is. [I froze up, in spite of truly knowing what to do. Test anxiety more than lack of math skill held me back.]

I look at the TV show "Numb3rs" (which I love) and hope that more young people can see how vital math is to so many arenas. It's in music to a huge degree. It's in cooking. It's in eveything- and no one seems to care.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 6:01 AM on July 16, 2006

Re: divabat's comments up-thread:

Jamjam and scottreynen have it. While scottreynen's conjecture may not come to bear upon the problem of burnout among Asian students, and it doesn't necessarily say anything about cultural differences in the way math is teached, it does strongly come to bear upon the issue of differing math acquisition rates between Asian countries such as China and Japan that use a pictographic language system and countries such as the United States that use the Roman alphabet and Arabic numerals. This is an effect well enough documented that it was explained in my developmental psychology textbook this past semester.

Essentially, the "grammar" of mathematics is easier to understand and acquire in Asian characters. You can do the mental "heavy lifting" of math easier with those characters.

Behold, relevant studies/write-ups of studies:

-"The inherent compound word structure of the Chinese language seems well suited to portray mathematical ideas."

-"Li...found that Chinese American students who read and write in characters also do extraordinarily well on the SAT math test, and have an average score some 200 points higher than non-Chinese, non-character writing students."

-"In counting verbally a child quickly learns to count to ten. We have symbols for these and they are used frequently in our environment. However, after ten, language changes present problems. The English speaking child has to acquire new vocabulary that is not easily associated with the first ten words. For example: eleven, twelve, thirteen etc. and: twenty-one, twenty-two etc."
posted by limeonaire at 6:52 AM on July 16, 2006 [1 favorite]

I did terribly in math my entire life. I didn't understand it, was slow at it, and felt really badly about it.

Then I taught at Kaplan (LSAT, not requiring any math) and they needed someone to fill in for GRE/SAT... I found that the method that Kaplan taught to answer algebra and geometry questions made a whole lot more sense to me. I took a GRE and did great on the math section... and I started to enjoy teaching math to students that also hated it growing up.
posted by k8t at 6:58 AM on July 16, 2006

Although, as noted several times up-thread, this advantage doesn't necessarily persist once students reach the college level—for a number of reasons, this advantage doesn't translate over to working with higher-level math.

That's where the cultural stuff comes back into play, as those who were raised to be interested and engaged in math are more likely to continue their study of it into higher levels.
posted by limeonaire at 6:59 AM on July 16, 2006

I see your point now. .. the problem isn't that public schools are bad -- it is that public school students are disadvantaged. If we really want to solve these problems, we need to address the causative factors.

JackFlash: You're getting closer. That's not my point; it's the point that the people who wrote the source article were trying to make.

My point is that Chickletworks, who claimed that the article states that kids in private school do no better than those in public school, was completely wrong. She hadn't read the report - she'd read a misguided, but not flagrantly inaccurate summary of it by a reporter who didn't understand the statistics used - and she had also erred in her interpretation of that NY Times article.

So I went to the abstract of the original report itself to learn what it showed, what methods were used, and the derivation of its conclusions. Then I posted to clear up the misunderstanding.

Where did I learn these critical thinking skills that I have demonstrated here? Private schools.
posted by ikkyu2 at 5:23 PM on July 16, 2006

A derail, but:

"Essentially, the "grammar" of mathematics is easier to understand and acquire in Asian characters. You can do the mental "heavy lifting" of math easier with those characters."

What are "Asian characters"? Japanese and Corean mainly use alphabet-style letters; although Chinese characters stick around in the form of Kanji and Han-ja, they are not used in math, at least in Corea.

Like foreign languages, I think the answers are simple (but the solution is impossible): people (teachers/parents/students) here (Corea) care more, they emphasize it more at school, school success is vastly more "necessary" and "desireable" among a far larger portion of the population, they have a slightly better / more intuitive system for teaching it, and something that I notice every day:

Corea, at least, doesn't have the Jacksonian history of anti-intellectualism and suspicion of "experts" that America has.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 8:10 PM on July 16, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks so much for the book recommendations and the great ideas on introducing math in conversations. I ordered some books on Amazon. I am so thrilled we have a Kumon center near us. I had never heard of it. I am definitely going to check it out.

If you value your children's intellectual development, and plan on staying in the United States, you must go where the money is. This usually means private school, but you can just as easily (which is to say, not very) move to a rich town and reap the same benefits. My parents chose this route, renting apartments and houses in wealthy towns my entire young life so that I'd be able to mix in with the rich kids and take part in all the goodies their property taxes were able to buy.

I totally agree with this. There is a "rich kid" public school 10 minutes away from me. It has a great reputation for academics, and everybody wants to send their kids there. Unfortunately we aren't able to go there because of our zoning laws. Even though my husband and I are in about the same income bracket as other families attending this rich kid school, we live in a different part of town. We are zoned for a school that receives Title 1 funds, has about 35 portables on campus, and is seriously overcrowded. We were able to exercise school choice under the No Child Left Behind Act. Our kids will now be going to another public school that scores about the same as the rich kid school. We are seriously considering moving to the rich kid zone, or going the private route.

I have been thinking long and hard about public vs. private schools for the last year or so. Part of me thinks it is a huge mistake that I enrolled him in public school. I don't really know why I didn't investigate private schools further than I did. There are two private schools that have good reputations a couple towns over (less than 30 min. drive). One is non-denominational Christian, and the other is Catholic. My husband and I are not religious, and we aren't sure if we want our kids to have religious schooling. I am not necessarily completely opposed to it, so we have some thinking to do.

Also, consider that fun and interest are bad as sole or even primary motivators or justifications for learning. At some point, learning math or any other subject is going to turn into a grinding, unpleasant slog. Have your children understand that it is not fun and games all the time, and that nobody's going to die if it isn't for a while, or maybe even ever. Don't let it be torture, but children (people, really) should work hard and do well at their work not primarily because it's fun or interesting, but because that is what mature and responsible people do.

I agree completely.

Math on the GRE is actually easier than the math on the SAT. No algebra, no geometry, no graphs. I don't think any of it is beyond a regular 6th grade level.

If this is the case, than no worries here!

I am seriously considering taking a math class or two at the community college. In the past there was a lot of anxiety because these math courses were prerequisites for a bachelor's degree in nursing. Now that I have my degree, there is no pressure.

Ilsa, my sister is an elementary school teacher and a reading specialist. She loaned me a Reading Mastery kit. It's by the same author that wrote Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons. It's a great program. I have been reading aloud to my kids since birth. My 5-year old was reading some sight words, and was begging to teach him to read. This program works. I have read a few things about Everyday Math, and I have read that some teachers are opposed to it. I need to investigate further, because it's all Greek to me.

I want my children to have a quality education. A better education than I had. I don't want them to be dumb like their mama. :)

Thanks again everybody. Every single answer has been incredibly interesting and informative.
posted by LoriFLA at 8:23 PM on July 16, 2006

I went to public schools for elementary, middle, and high schools. We moved three times during my schooling, and every time my parents took school test scores and reputations into account when they chose housing; they simply would not move to an area with bad public schools. They were also very active in making sure I got the classes and teachers I needed in order to learn, including going to parent-teacher conferences, encouraging my interest in any academic subject that appealed, and staying on top of the school and principal when necessary to make sure I was placed in appropriate, challenging courses.

I had some great teachers, some truly wonderfully intelligent classmates, and got into an Ivy League school (as did nine or ten of my classmates, which was unusual for a public school in the south, because many don't apply that far north).

Not everyone has enough money to make the public school system work for them in this way, of course, but it's more than possible for a person to get a good, solid, engaging education in some of this country's public schools.
posted by occhiblu at 9:21 PM on July 16, 2006

And I should add: Once I got into college, I maintained a 3.7 GPA and never once felt like I was behind the other students, most of whom were northeast private school kids, in terms of my knowledge, intelligence, or educational background.
posted by occhiblu at 9:24 PM on July 16, 2006

This thread may be getting pretty saturated but I just have to chime in. For the record, my lifelong abhorrence of "math" is due to the teachers and public school curriculum who slowly, methodically, and boringly beat every last twitch of interest I'd ever had in math right out of me. Even today, remembering the excruciating classes and mind-numbing homework makes me actually angry. I can do math, and regularly work out complex real-life problems. But my K-12 math background of endless drills and memorization squashed any curiousity I had, and a continuation of the same theme throughout college succeeded only in instilling a drive to avoid, at almost any cost, formal advanced math instruction.
posted by Tubes at 10:52 AM on July 17, 2006

You and your husband should take a math class at community college for fun. Start from the parts you didn't understand or do well at when you were in high school and work your way up. Don't ever let the kids believe they can't learn it or do it.
posted by onepapertiger at 2:31 PM on July 17, 2006


I tried to leave this comment for when people stopped looking at it, because it's potentially too personal. If I offend, please forgive.

It was interesting two me that the few things you pulled out of the many, many comments left for you were: A) rich schools are better; B) math is hard; C) this or that intensive tutoring program works; D) my child must not be dumb. Nothing at all about enjoyment in learning, or the beauty of math.

You sound a lot like the many high-achieving, high-stress parents I work with as a teacher. And I must tell you that I have intense sympathy for their children. The vast majority of them are anxious, dutiful, fearful of other kids and therefore disliked -- and most of them are not good thinkers, just good achievers. They get good grades but they're as helpless as babies when expected to think on their own or study for their own pleasure. They're prime candidates for anorexia or panic disorders in later years.

Please, please, please consider cultivating joy and openness, curiosity and humor, patience and flexibility in your children -- instead of achievement, duty, high performance. Honestly, I'm watching children around me being ruined by their aggressive parents. Please don't be one.
posted by argybarg at 10:05 AM on July 18, 2006

Response by poster: argybarg, thank you so much for this comment. I agree with it completely. I take your advice seriously and to heart . I don't want to be "that mom".

my child must not be dumb
I can't help to feel this way. I don't think I am a person that expects perfection, nor do I feel that I would place strict demands on my children to become high-achievers. I just want them to have a better education than I did. I never went away to college, but went to the local community college and University of Central Florida in my hometown. My husband and I just have bachelor's degrees. I don't want to be the kind of parent that lives vicariously through their children, but I also can't help to want for them to go to a better school, and have experiences that I missed out on.

Maybe I have my priorities out of order. I want my boys to have fun to enjoy learning. My 5-year old does enjoy learning immensely. My teacher sister always comments on how eager he is to learn. I don't want to screw them up.

Please, please, please consider cultivating joy and openness, curiosity and humor, patience and flexibility in your children -- instead of achievement, duty, high performance.

I do want to do this, and think that I am for the most part. I read aloud to them all the time. I don't drill them. We read books they enjoy. We have lots of unstructured play and free time. All of my friends have their kids in structured summer programs. We are just chilling, going to the beach, and hanging out at home in the backyard. I have never really had them in a formal program apart from the reading kit my sister gave me to teach him to read.

I hope I don't sound totally naive, but how can I cultivate joy and openness, curiosity and humor, patience and flexibility? How do I know if I am doing it right? If you were the parent, how would you go about this?
posted by LoriFLA at 11:21 AM on July 19, 2006


Your advice is much more open-hearted than mine ever could be to someone pointing a finger at me.

Of course, I'm giving advice that's difficult to even know how to follow, let alone do. I can't tell you as a parent. As a teacher, I can tell you that a huge part of teaching well is: Teach things that you like to do yourself. So many teachers try to compel kids to do things that they themselves would hate to do (like, for instance, writing a persuasive essay about a poem, or writing a letter to a fictional character). Then they're surprised that the kids hate to do it!

Of course, some things you have to teach -- but the key is to find a key activity that you, yourself, really enjoy. I often stand in front of the thing I'm thinking of using in the classroom -- a poem, a map, a photograph -- and ask myself: "What do I want to do with this?" Do I want to cut it up and rearrange it? Do I want to solve it? Do I want to write my own version? If I can't think of anything I want to do, I just discard it and move on.

The standard method of "teaching" seems to consist of manipulating kids into doing things they find confusing and pointless. It doesn't work -- which really is why children don't learn much in school.

So, the only answer I can give is to think of what you truly love and share it in the way you love it. If you want to try to make yourself love math, then that seems like a worthy goal. Perhaps your husband could think through what he loves about mathematics, then proceed from there? That could be fun, even if it were hard work.

But I do wish all teachers would stop trying to make kids learn. You can't do it; all you can do is pretend you have.
posted by argybarg at 6:59 PM on July 19, 2006

"So many teachers try to compel kids to do things that they themselves would hate to do (like, for instance, writing a persuasive essay about a poem, or writing a letter to a fictional character). Then they're surprised that the kids hate to do it!"

Yet the real secret purpose of "education" as its institutionalized (as distinct from the bulk of our educations) is to train us for the high percentage of life that consists of activities we'd rather not do, like paying bills, changing diapers, driving the speed limit, not stabbing our bosses, going to med school before getting that fat doctor's paycheck, compromising with the wife about what shows to watch on TV, learning to appreciate people who have beliefs perpendicular to our own, cutting down on the pot smoking &c.

Of course a teacher's enthusiasm for what she really cares about can mean more, but to me it's really not an "either/or," it's a "yes, and..."

"But I do wish all teachers would stop trying to make kids learn. You can't do it; all you can do is pretend you have.

First sentence is right on. I'd amend the second:
All you can do is hope to create the conditions of possibility for learning.

It'll be fine. Just keep caring deeply about it all. Fill your house with books, and provide disparate opportunities for experience & learning. It's not out of line to expect high grades; it's easy to get good grades in US schools. Really.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 4:39 AM on July 20, 2006

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