Solving America's Math Problem

October 15, 2012

It is no secret that American students are having a difficult time keeping up with their global peers in subjects such as math and science. America's lagging mathematics performance reflects a basic failure to understand the benefits of adapting the curriculum to meet the varying instructional needs of students, says Jacob Vigdor, a professor of public policy and economics at Duke University.

Math performance has steadily fallen over the last century. To keep up with the demand for higher performing math students, educators have tried on multiple occasions to reform teaching methods to become more effective. However, this has resulted in more failure and an uptick in remedial courses in high school and colleges.

Keeping in line with the No Child Left Behind Act, educators have shifted their resources to improving math skills of low and average performing students at the expense of more advanced students. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg School (CMS) district in North Carolina is an example of how these reforms fail.

  • With more than 100,000 students, CMS ranks among the 30 largest school districts in the United States.
  • Ten years ago, the superintendent instructed middle school principals to accelerate enrollment of a larger proportion of their students into the eighth grade Algebra 1 course.
  • As a result, moderately performing students had an 85 percent chance of taking algebra 1.
  • However, students performed worse on the end-of-course test when they were accelerated into the class.

In addition, students that took accelerated algebra course didn't end up taking pre-algebra, which affected their scores in later math courses like geometry. Furthermore, because more low-to-moderate performing students were in the accelerated courses, teachers had to ease the course. This resulted in less valuable instruction for high-achieving students.

Rather than promote equity in math, U.S. educators should tailor their curricula to fit the needs of the students so that high-performing students aren't slowed down and lower performing students aren't rushed.

Another option would be to introduce the "Singapore math" model, which emphasizes more thorough coverage of fewer topics. This has been shown to be a much better model than what is currently in the United States.

Source: Jacob Vigdor, "Solving America's Math Problem," Education Next, Winter 2013/Vol. 3 No. 1.


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