Math Education: Why U.S. Students Fall Behind

About Jackie Parrish

I am a retired teacher who taught in middle school for 30 years. I have certifications in elementary education, reading, and math. I have spent most of my career teaching math to 7th and 8th graders in an urban setting. I have also presented staff development within my school and within my district. Although I am now retired I am still passionate about teaching math in ways that engage all students.

The failure of math education in the United States has several reasons. After looking at the results of two international tests that we participate in, I can suggest some of the reasons for this problem. The PISA (The Programme for International Student Assessment) and TIMSS (Third International Mathematics and Science Study) are international tests that industrialized countries have agreed to give. The results of these tests are analyzed by subject so that it is a fair comparison. For many cycles of this testing the U.S. has ranked lower in math and science than most other industrialized countries. In this article I am going to share some of the reasons why I believe this is the case.

About the Assessments

PISA is given every three years. Its information is gathered by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The results are based on assessments of 15 year old students internationally in math, science and reading.

TIMMS data comes from tests given in grades four and eight. The tests are administered every four years. IEA (International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement) sponsors TIMMS. In the U.S. the data is managed by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) which is part of the U.S. DOE.

TIMMS also studies the teaching of math and science in participating countries. I have been fortunate enough to view TIMMS videos of math instruction from around the world. The difference between how American math teachers present topics and how those in other industrialized countries is quite interesting. In the U.S. it is most common to see algorithms taught, followed by students working out a number of practice problems using the algorithm. In many other countries the algorithm is only taught after the students experience group problem solving. At this point they are able to more easily use the algorithm.

Brain Research

We know more about the brain and how we learn today than we ever have. One piece of information that is essential to math education is the fact that rote memorization is not the best method of learning math. Thinking and talking about math is. It has also been found that timed tests are not the best way to evaluate students. The brain does not function well under time constraints. If you want more information about this brain research please check out the article by my fellow author Teresa Cooper.

National Curriculum

Many of the countries that outperform us in math education have a national curriculum. This allows all students in public schools throughout the country to learn consistent skills. A national curriculum means that if a student moves from one area to another there will be little change in what is taught. My fellow writer, Lori H. Rice, explained the idea of a national curriculum in a recent article. A national curriculum does not mean that everything is taught the same way. It simply means that there some consistency in instruction from location to location.

Teachers as Professionals

Looking at math education in countries like Finland, Japan, and Singapore we see teachers being treated as professionals. They have planning time that is not taken from them to cover classes. They also have subject meeting time where they can discuss topics and issues with their peers. It is recognized that they know about child development. They are not pressured by those who are not trained in a subject to change their method of teaching because a parent doesn’t understand the new method.

In countries like Finland, Japan, and Singapore teachers being treated as professionals. Click To Tweet

Let me sum up what I believe are the reasons that American students so not do as well in international math tests as others in industrialized nations.

1. We have an extremely mobile population. Many families move from state to state for better jobs, to be near family and for health reasons to name a few. With different curriculum in different states students who move often don’t catch up. A common set of topics in each subject would avoid these problems.

2. U.S. teachers are asked to do too many non-teaching activities when they could be doing research to enhance their teaching.

3. In addition to parents questioning what is being taught and requesting change in methodology we have teachers who continue to practice outdated methods. I am not saying that American teachers don’t know their subject matter but that the constraints of their schedules do not always allow them to keep up with new research in math education.

Looking into the future we must learn to adapt our teaching to what our current students will be facing in the job market. They will not be working at one job or career their entire lives. They will be working at jobs that require them to think critically as well as think outside the box. How do we best teach for the jobs of the future? I am curious to hear your thoughts on this.

we must learn to adapt our teaching to what our students will be facing in the job market Click To Tweet

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By | 2016-12-04T21:48:26+00:00 December 9th, 2016|Instruction&Curriculum, Mathematics|4 Comments

About the Author:

I am a retired teacher who taught in middle school for 30 years. I have certifications in elementary education, reading, and math. I have spent most of my career teaching math to 7th and 8th graders in an urban setting. I have also presented staff development within my school and within my district. Although I am now retired I am still passionate about teaching math in ways that engage all students.

4 Comments

  1. Hugo Alva December 11, 2016 at 4:57 am - Reply

    My 2 cents of opinion: In all the American continent and in western Europe Math is seen within families (society in a broader sense) as almost useless. You can’t hardly develop in school what has not been developed at home or in the neighborhood.And without that there is no motivation at all. The only thing that is left to you as a teacher (I’ve been educating grown-up persons in Electronics in Mexico and Switzerland over 10 years) is to keep the encouragement for the ones that are on their way and to give the others an opportunity, Specifically in the case of big differences you have to put additional (unpaid of course) and detect the cases that need emergency measures like attending some extra hours for treating their deficiencies in a onoe-to-one case… but that is all. I remember that in 2005 / 6 there was a school that excel in the PISA test in the mountains in Chiapas, Mexico. The resources were almost not existent, nut the teacher, as he had nothing else toi do, and the pupils worked in the afternoons in the home work. They got a better score than any private / public school in the whole country. And by the way, the families of the pupils supported that as they saw education as a way to get their families out of misery.
    Motivation is the key word for me. And without that nothing can be done.

  2. Robin Scott-Scott December 11, 2016 at 1:35 pm - Reply

    I might, also, add the differences which exist between generational parenting skills. Baby Boomer parents insisted on children do their very best in school. There were no exceptions. In addition, math and science were at the forefront of education at that time.

    Generation X parents are, in my opinion, ‘entitlement brats’. These parents refuse to make their children learn because they were raised in an ‘It’s all about ME era”. These parents work, some by necessity and some by choice. Yet, Gen X parents truly believe students should learn ‘only’ at school during school hours. They believe that if they cannot understand lesson plans, then surely there is no need for learning that lesson plan. They never require their children to learn what they do not understand, because once again they argue, “Why? What’s in it for me?”

    Millenials struggle as well, considering their only hope of learning has been dependent on individual abilities to learn, help from one another, and teachers who make themselves available for the 150 students they teach each day. Parent’s certainly will not. Generation X parents offer up excuse after excuse: “I work for a living. I am too tired to help with homework. There should be no homework. That’s why I send them to you. Do Your Jobs!”

    I know. I taught at the collegiate level. I spent the first 30 minutes of every class day addressing work ethics to the GEN X generation, even if this was in my Anatomy and Physiology course. Thirty Minutes! Their argument? Why does an employer care whether I am on time or not as long as I show up? Or the infamous “If they (employers) want my help they should help me!”

    Today, I have a daughter teaching in public schools and she became so disillusioned by parents’ demands that she give particular leniency to their child because of the, “I send them to school for you to teach. We have no time for homework, besides, I don’t even understand their homework.” she gave up teaching full time and is now teaching as a substitute.

    Gen X parents grew up where ‘participation trophies’ were given to students for every activity they participated in, including those students who showed up not to participate in the activity, but rather for the sake of leaving with a trophy. Again, the millennials are products of their parents’ lack of parent/student activities.

    Today, I, a baby boomer, am raising my 11 y/o grandson. The math algorithms are simply foreign to me. I don’t understand why the algorithms which have been used for centuries suddenly changed. Yet, that is not the issue, it is only a topic. I had no choice but to seek a tutor to help me understand so I could help him. I continue to seek a tutor. I am old and I have a failing heart, but my heart would break if I knew my actions of exclusion prevented him from seeking his inclusion into his potential productive future. There are even times when he becomes my tutor so that I can help him.

    Teachers today are placed in a critical area of education. The criteria are no longer teaching students in their classroom. It includes all the unnecessary redundant assessments and teaching to those assessments, rather than teaching lesson plans. It includes teaching 30-40 students per class 5 classes per day. It includes being available not for 2 parents per child, but rather 4 parents per child and 4 sets of grandparents, each possessing his/her own ideas regarding education and each set being members of Gen X. It includes leaving no child left behind, even if that single child slows down the entire class. It includes having to live off minimal wages while making those wages available to purchase classroom supplies, which in turn forces teachers to survive on unlivable minimum wages. It includes teachers attending daily after school activities to appease parents and administrators leading to teachers staying up into late hours of the night grading papers. And Lord, protect a teacher if he/she fails to respond to parents email/text the moment it is sent. (Remember: Gen X parents are all about themselves, not others.) It includes teachers getting only 4-6 hours sleep nightly and working sleep deprived daily. It is about teachers working Sat/Sun at home bringing closure to the weeks before and preparing for the upcoming week. It is about teachers putting their own families on hold to help your children. God forbid a teacher spends time with his/her own family.

    It is about teachers not receiving the respect they deserve and the appreciation they work so very hard to achieve, yet, rarely receive. It is about PARENTS who simply don’t give a rat’s ass about the one person who dedicates his/her given day to promote the successes of yours’.

    May God Offer Blessings to Our Teachers

  3. Elizabeth Mach December 11, 2016 at 3:21 pm - Reply

    In the US we value fast math facts and algorithm recall, rarely do we value productive struggle and effort…we praise those who get it easily as the brightest, but really we need to value reasoning and critical thinking above rapid recall…i feel like the lone ranger preaching this in my teaching practice, but it truly works and its not the math i teach but how to learn math…all math teachers need to understand carol dweck’s research in growth mindset too…

  4. Jim December 20, 2016 at 10:49 pm - Reply

    As a retired world traveler and budding math teacher, I am very interested in differences and similarities in teaching methods between countries. From your analysis, what were the viewpoints of and results from integrated math around the world?

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