Solving America's Math Crisis

February 8, 2013

American students lag far behind their global peers when it comes to mathematical capability. This is an important problem that must be addressed, says Jacob Vigdor, a professor of public policy and economics at Duke University.

  • In general, those with greater mathematical capability, and specifically, higher math SAT scores and math majors in college, earn higher salaries in the workplace.
  • From 1983 to 2007, the percent of college graduates with math-intensive majors fell from roughly 25 percent to around 15 percent and parallels the decline in the rate of college completion.

Until roughly the 1960s, after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik and the Cold War was well underway, topics like algebra, geometry and trigonometry were consider intellectual luxuries that only the elite college-bound would study. As the space race intensified, more students were focused toward learning new, more theoretical math like calculus. A 1983 report titled "A Nation at Risk" exposed that while the elite students in math were excelling, the average American student struggled with remedial math.

  • While each of the past five decades has witnessed mathematics curriculum reform aimed at improving student performance, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam, which creates a benchmark to compare students internationally, has confirmed that between 2000 and 2009 American high school students have gotten worse at math.
  • Vigdor notes that the quality of textbooks over the last century has decreased significantly as courses have been catered to boost low-performing students.

Vigdor explains that solutions are not as easy as simply funneling more students into Algebra I at an earlier age. A previous study found that in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School (CMS) district, one of America's  30 largest school districts, students who performed poorly in 6th grade were unlikely to take Algebra I by 8th grade and that district-wide Algebra I acceleration made students perform worse on 8th grade math assessments.

In order to adjust education policy and continue the advances in closing the educational gap while simultaneously improving math performance, America needs to adjust its immigration policy to let more foreign graduate degree holders stay while tailoring math curriculum to adjust to  the various needs of students, whether they be low-performing or high-performing.

Source: Jacob Vigdor, "Solving America's Math Problem," Education Next, Winter 2013.


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