I keep hearing that the United States ranks low in student performance in math and science. This can be interpreted at least two ways.

Interpretations 1: The United States is doing a poor job educating students in two subjects that are vital to the future of the world.

Interpretation 2: Students in the United States realize they will never need to know that mylonite is a breccieated metamorphic rock frequently found in a fault zone.

If you have kids, you know that most of what they learn in math and science is completely useless. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that kids have figured it out too.

I grant you that it is important for the future of the economy that we produce plenty of scientists and inventors and researchers. But how does it help anyone that a future chef can tell you which critters evolved in which epoch? He just needs to know which ones are good eatin'.

I'm all in favor of benchmarking against other countries for education. But isn't the average grade for math and science the most obviously useless and misleading statistic one could follow?
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Oct 20, 2008
I don't think our rank in math and science is unimportant, but I do agree that we need to measure more disciplines than just math and science. My major disappointment with our education system since No Child Left Behind is the narrow focus on the "test" subjects.

I have a child who is very abstract in her thinking. Far beyond her many of her classmates, but she's been set aside for the advanced courses because she wasn't particularly good with the concrete facts of math and science. Unfortunately, now that she's in high school and doing more abstract math, she's board because the main classes are moving too slowly. On the other hand, many of her friends who were placed in advanced courses because they quickly picked up concrete math fact, are now struggling because they don't have abstract reasoning.

Another issue with the narrow focus of our system is that kids aren't learning other important information. The same child, who I've worked to help her see the world through different eyes, was the only child in her 10th grade geography class who could identify Alaska as being North and West of Philadelphia. Half her classmates couldn't identify the location of the Atlantic Ocean. Ironically, most of them spent their summer on the Jersey Shore.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 20, 2008
I taught English in Japan for two years, where there is strong emphasis on test scores. After six years of studying English, the average Japanese student can rearrange the words in "store went the I to" to form a correct sentence. However, because there is no test for conversation, they are completely incapable of answering something like "How have you been doing?" - even students going to the top Japanese universities. If you aim for students to have high test scores, you'll just get students who are good at taking tests. Like Scott says, this is a pretty useless statistic.
Oct 20, 2008
I think the more interesting statistic would be our rank over time, not our rank in a static list. For example, perhaps we have always been number 5 historically but have some advantages (such as cultural, geographic, or financial) which still give us an edge in the world economy. Or perhaps we used to be number 10 and are now number 5. That makes saying “Oh! It is so terrible that we are number 5!” a bit misleading.
Oct 20, 2008
Low scores in science and math indicate a a lack of critical thinking and logic skills. Memorizing rock types may be completely useless to most people, but knowing the difference between a theory based massive bodies of evidence and a belief based on whimsy is an important skill.
Oct 20, 2008
Scott - I AM an engineer and i have never directly used very much of what i learned in school. The sub-speciality I chose caused me to have to do most of my learning on the job. However, what i DID learn in school was analytical thinking, problem solving, how to dig out the actual facts, how to research new ideas, how to express ideas effectively in written form, etc. Most of which from my college engineering courses.

So -school- is important (I know you didn't say it wasn't - but stay with me). Comparing math/science scores is at least a somewhat apples-to-apples way of comparing countries - "english" and "social studies" curriculums would vary too widely. So think of these scores as a "proxy" for general accomplishment and achievement. Now, I admit that this falls apart if we have a lot of students who score highly in all their other classes but quite low in math/science, but I would suggest this is not the case. Good students tend to be good across the board, regardless of whether they think it makes "sense' to do well in Trigonometry.

So I would argue that these comparisons have some usefulness - providing a gross rating how well we're doing educating our nation compared to others.

+4 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 20, 2008
I think math and science (as other subjects) are important and relevant no matter what proffesion you end up in for at least 3 reasons:

1. You don't know what proffesion you'll end up in when you're a kid so by the time you do figure out what to do you'd better have some prep work done or you'll be 40 by the time you learn trigonometry.

2. Regardless of the profession you're in, at least math will have something to do in it. Even if you end up a mafia druglord you're goint to want to know how much money is coming in and how much is needed to pay off the authorities while still being able to buy that gold-plated yacht for your third mistress.

3. Learning math and science helps develop your brain. I've got no data to back this one up, but even though most of the math and science concepts they teach us at school are useless in everyday life, the fact that we have to learn them is like doing "mental crunches". It somehow prepares our brain to understand things better.
Oct 20, 2008
I wish I still had the book handy so I could cite this more fully, but I remember Fareed Zakaria mentioned in "The Post-American World" that America's low education ranking was misleading, and that in actuality we had a wide gulf in performance. Our good schools are really good, and our bad schools are really bad, so we end up with a lower average that suggests we're all a bunch of idiots compared to other countries. So we aren't doing everything wrong.
Oct 20, 2008
Pure math and science are important means to an end that has little to do with the subjects themselves. Even if knowing about geology or calculus doesn't get 99% of the population anywhere, it instills critical thinking skills, skills in logic and analysis, and other higher-level thinking skills. Those are skills that every professional person needs, no matter what job they do.

And for the future engineers, doctors, researchers, et cetera? You've got to start them on math and science early--that's a neuroscience fact, that it's easier to straight-up memorize periodic tables and math rules earlier in life. And since we can't ask fifth-graders which ones of them are going to be civil engineers in twenty years, and the skills are useful for them all anyway, they all get that education.
+6 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 20, 2008
The information learned in science class is largely unimportant. What *is* important is the critical thinking skills that science classes are supposed to teach: observation, cause and effect, creating and testing hypotheses, data analysis, and even record-keeping. Teaching students what cellular mitosis is isn't important, but training them so that they're capable of learning it is.

American students may realize this. They may be gaming the system, not studying like their lives depend on it because it's an ultimately trivial standardized test that nobody will care about their grade on by that time next month, let alone by the time they start trying to get into colleges, while countries like Japan tie these tests to overall grades and their competitive education system so that anyone who scores poorly might derail their academic career.
Oct 20, 2008
Going back to school for an Engineering degree after a decade haitus, I was shocked to find that I'm expected to do complex derivation and integration in my head, but students from other countries had no trouble with that. But the same students in material science can't figure out why you can't make #10 bolts out of aluminum. Go America!
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 20, 2008
"the United States ranks low in student performance in math and science": uh! not true, something is wrong with the method of comparing.
Anyway, the school system must emphasize the importance of math and science, and de-emphasize the stupid "dream" which many kids have such as becoming a star in entertainment business or sport . American Idol proves how off-tracked kids are.

+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 20, 2008
Why do American students rank lower than other countries? I would guess it is because the Average American student has far more distractions (toys, technology, video games, etc) and is therefore less likely to want to learn boring stuff like math. One of the downsides to being one of the most advanced societies in the world.

In America, the performance of students has everything to do with the quality of the teachers, and the material they are given. Teaching is still a job, and for many teachers they treat it as such. Add to that that the more analytical (boring) teachers tend to gravitate to those fields, and of course these subjects will be boring and students will not learn as well. A good friend of mine is a match/Physics teacher in a poor neighborhood. She is 32, beautiful, and makes every class interactive by separating them into groups to solve math problems. Not surprisingly, her students are well above the national average. Billyfens below said it best, "teach the kids to love learning and they will be unstoppable".
Oct 20, 2008
I can agree to a certain extent on the obscure science knowlege but people's lack of math skills is a significant driver of our current financial crisis. every so often I get a good reason to retell this story and this seems like one:

back in '95 I was buying a watch & saw a "25% off all Timex" sign. the watch I wanted had a $80 pricetag on it which prompted the following exchange between me & the person behind the counter:

me: "is that $80 before or after the discount?"
them: "before"
me: "cool, so it'll only be $60 then?"
them: "I don't know - let me check..." {reaches for calculator}
them: "no, it's only $55..."
me: {stunned} "um, I probably shouldn't be arguing this w/you but I'm pretty sure 25% off of $80 is $60..."
them: {repeats "caclucation" and shows me the result} "no, I did it again and it's $55 - see?"
me: {now more perplexed having seen calculator} "o.k., you talked me in to it - $55 it is!"

now as somebody w/apparently above-average math skills this bothered me - how in the H3|| did this in-DUH-vidual come up w/$55 - ON A CALCULATOR? I walked through the mall determined to figure this out when the lightbulb went off: 25 PERCENT off of $80 is $60 {$80-($80*.25)=>$80-$20=>$60) but $80 minus 25 DOLLARS is $55.

what do you want to bet this person has negative equity on their car and a teaser-rate ARM they're about to be roadkill from?

math matters...
Oct 20, 2008
I would just like to note that the American education system is unlike many other countries which we are being compared. In America we educate anyone from all walks of life until they are 18 years old, generally using the same system and same methods. In many countries in Europe and Asia many children who are low performers early on are taken on a different education track. The children in these tracks may not even reach the education level where these comparison tests are taken. Therefore, we may be comparing the best and brightest of other countries to the "average American" child.
Oct 20, 2008

Standardized math tests of 8th graders in math. 8th grade, which is barely even Algebra. That's not obscure or useless.

Chef's use algrebra all the time, when they double or halve recipes, when they figure out what they need to order. Discrete math is important when making schedules for employees.

It's not average grades. It's often not even average scores. It's often much more complicated than that. But, being an American high school graduate, you might not understand the math behind it.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 20, 2008
Science and maths are subjects that most students study all the way thorough high school throughout the world. Ranking me on my ability in chinese against a chinese person isn't a good indicator of the education system. However it is quite likely that at 16 i had studied mathematics at a similar level to you, or anyone else.
Oct 20, 2008
I always figured the math and science jobs get filled by people who were good at those things anyway, and they make stuff that handles the math and science for all the folks who aren't good at it. I.e. Joe Blow doesn't need to know how to do calculus as long as there's somebody around to make a fancy calculator that CAN do calculus.

Of course the flip side is when people don't have a good working knowledge of science, they get more easily taken in by junk science, and that can be needlessly expensive if, say, politicians who also have fallen for junk science pass legislation to "do something about it".
Oct 20, 2008
"The Problem" is our U.S. view of "for every problem there exists a singular solution."

Students not testing well? Let's better prepare them for tests!


I'm a teacher. Let me teach kids to love learning however I do it best. Once they learn to love learning, they will be unstoppable.

In the meantime, stop getting in my way. Your tests, data-studies, & "new" methodologies are only killing student desire.

Scott: I'd love to read your thoughts on one of the "newest" methodologies: "Learning Focused Schools." We present the kids with a "key/essential question" for the lesson, give them a brief explanation of the answer, and then expect them to care about the rest of the class period when they know that they will only be responsible for knowing the answer to the question.
Oct 20, 2008
Thank you, I totally agree. We need to give kids access to information and they'll naturally go out and learn. Things I wish we taught better are personal finance, how to be a good parent, good communication skills, and better understanding of government, law, and the constitution. These are things that will come in handy no matter your profession.
Oct 20, 2008
Rating our schools against those in other countries is BS anyway. It is an invalid comparison because of cultural differences, like apples and oranges, to a degree. What we SHOULD be concentrating on are things like the HS dropout rate, and why it goes so starkly along racial/ethnic lines. The shortage of good teachers and the crumbling infrastructure are issues too. Measuring us against ourselves, what we could be, not other systyems is the only way to improve.
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