NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Solving America's Mathematics Education Problem

August 22, 2012

American students test poorly in mathematics compared to those in other developed -- and in some cases, less developed -- countries. However, math skills are crucial for the United States to remain competitive with the 21st century economy, says Jacob L. Vigdor, an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a professor of public policy and economics at Duke University.

Educators and policymakers must exercise caution when pursuing strategies to increase math skills among students. Many of the current strategies revolve around providing equality to all students. This is counterproductive because there is a lot of variability in students' aptitude for math. The result is a lesser quality of education as educators strive to provide a curriculum that low-achieving students will grasp.

Despite this, many school districts have sought to accelerate students into advanced math classes they may not be ready for in hopes that it will increase their aptitude for math. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district in North Carolina provides an example of this problem.

  • In 2002, the school district pushed to accelerate students into 8th grade algebra classes.
  • The number of students that were performing below average in math yet enrolled in algebra increased three-fold.
  • Those students scored 13 percentile points lower on a standardized test than those that took algebra on a normal schedule.
  • Additionally, accelerated students were less likely to pass the end-of-course exams.

Attempts to bridge the gap between low- and high-aptitude math students comes at the expense of furthering the education of high performers.

There are several prescriptions to ensure future American workers will include both innovators who create jobs in technically demanding industries and workers qualified to hold them:

  • First, make the importation of immigrants with strong skills in math a top priority in immigration policy.
  • Second, while experimentation is warranted, curriculum tinkering should be limited, as the net effect of past efforts has been negative.
  • Finally, it may be necessary to shed the idea that equity can be pursued in teaching math as this only hurts high achieving students.

Source: Jacob L. Vigdor, "Solving America's Mathematics Education Problem," American Enterprise Institute, August 20, 2012.


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