Can student math performance in the US rise above the tide?

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Student math performance in the US currently lags well behind its economic rivals. How can it catch up?

Though well documented, the real impact of poor US student math performance is difficult to gauge.

According to the NAEP’s 2019 report, students in grades 4 and 8 are barely treading water when it comes to developing numeracy skills; in the most-recent PISA report, 15-year-old students in the US ranked a lowly 32 out of 41 countries. And since both reports were pre-COVID, neither reflect the pandemic’s documented impact on schooling.

The data may make for uncomfortable reading, but as math educators across the US already know, the numbers don’t lie. 

What they reveal is that math performance actually deteriorates as students advance to higher grades. Not only is this the opposite of what you’d expect to happen as students spend more time with a subject, it’s also contrary to what is currently happening in higher-performing countries such as China, Singapore, Korea, and Japan.

Shaky foundations

“Students are often good at answering the first layer of a problem in the United States,” claimed Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s director of education and skills in response to the previous round of PISA results back in 2015. “But as soon as students have to go deeper and answer the more complex parts of a problem, they have difficulties”.

It appears that little has changed since then, with the problem continuing to manifest itself much later in life.

Aside from basic calculations when totting up bills or mortgage repayments, most American adults do not use or think about math in their daily lives. They barely even use it in their jobs. As a result, the truth is that most American adults are, to put it bluntly, terrible at math.

But then adults’ own experiences with math education in the US has been mired in a commitment to rote formula learning instead of developing an understanding of underlying numerical relations.

"Most American adults do not use or think about math in their daily lives. As a result, most American adults are, to put it bluntly, terrible at math." Click To Tweet

Though memorization is widely recognized as a necessary part of math education, it’s far from the be-all and end-all. In fact, research suggests that pure memorizers are also more likely to be low achievers

Another negative influence is the onus placed on speed over skill. High-pressure, timed tests have been shown to impair working memory, regardless of a student’s background or level of ability. The stress of having to quickly work through a complex problem can lead to inhibitive math anxiety – something that affects as many as one in three math students from as young as the age of four.

As a result, many slower, deeper math thinkers are abandoning the subject altogether. A negative experience can have the harmful effect of likewise shaping the perception of math more broadly. Asked why more students don’t pursue degrees in math-based disciplines, more than half of American adults said it was because these subjects were too difficult – an attitude that could easily influence and hamstring the ambitions of future generations. 

Math education is tied to economic prosperity

The effects of large-scale math avoidance could also be economically disastrous down the line.

Numeracy equips learners with the problem-solving skills they need to better deal with increasingly complex technologies and contribute to industrial innovations. It’s also the beating heart of the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering, and math) that drive major economic change. Yet US dominance in STEM research has receded as Asian countries such as China invest more and advance further.

Indeed, when it comes to STEM graduation numbers over the last half decade, China and India are clear frontrunners.

Different approaches to math education

The performance gap in math has given many commentators cause for concern. Why is it that Asian students are so far ahead of their US counterparts?

Part of the answer lies in cultural differences. From an early age, Asian students are taught to respect a teacher’s authority. Expectations are set high and meeting them takes a disciplined work ethic that rewards effort over outcome.

As a result, Asian students are more resilient and engaged when learning math; they are prepared to work hard instead of relying on talent or capitulating to a perceived lack of it. This approach nurtures a growth mindset that serves students well for the rest of their academic lives.

Indeed, when it comes to STEM graduation numbers over the last half decade, China and India are clear frontrunners.

In the US, this kind of growth-focused attitude is more often seen on the sports field than in the classroom. While achievement on the track or field makes one a “star”, in math the view is often that it makes one a “nerd” – hardly a suitable return for something that demands so much effort.

“Not a math person”: Viewing struggle as a step toward success

If educators are to improve how students learn math – a subject that richly rewards effort, persistence, and patience – they will need to foster the right attitude.

For many learners, experiencing repeated failures in math only confirms their fear that the subject is not for them. But failure is essential to the learning process, as neuroscience research indicate.

In one study, researchers found that a synapse fired in the brain whenever a student made a mistake in a math test, even when the student wasn’t aware of the mistake. Another synapse fired if the student recognized the mistake. If the learner later revisited the thought, it created a neural pathway. The more of these a learner uses when dealing with a particular problem, the deeper their level of understanding becomes. 

Such productive practice encourages exploration and makes allowance for mistakes. Over time, the math maturity this nurtures in students can be used to make the switch from concrete math to abstraction. It’s at this level that the real power of math is revealed: when not only do students begin to spot the connections between various fields of math, but they begin to grasp abstraction in related scientific fields such as chemistry and physics.

However, to get students to this point math education needs to go beyond memorization and obligation. It will even need to go beyond cultivating resilience.

"If classrooms can accommodate exploration and treat mistakes as part of the learning process, they can engage students and change how they think about math." Click To Tweet

Take Singapore, for example. Sitting second (behind China) in the global league of student math performance, it might seem as if Singapore’s education system is above criticism, but that isn’t the case. For all the diligence and industry it encourages in its students, critics worry about the pressure the system places on learners and the methods it uses to achieve top-of-the-line results.

In the pursuit of solid technique, students are widely discouraged from applying their own logic when solving math problems. This might keep them on track for following tried and tested methods to the letter, but innovation is the lifeblood of math. It’s what leads to era-defining breakthroughs.

This is where the opportunity lies for math education in the US. If classrooms can accommodate exploration and treat mistakes as part of the learning process, they can engage students and change how they think about math. If they can offer learners new ways of working through solutions and reflecting on their thought processes, they can instill the patience and persistence required to unlock math’s true potential.

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Micheál Heffernan

Senior Editor

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