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Back to April Ed Reporter

Education Reporter
NUMBER 147 THE NEWSPAPER OF EDUCATION RIGHTS APRIL 1998
U.S. Math Scores Fail the Test

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Results from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) show a continuing decline among U.S. high school seniors in math and science. American students ranked 19th out of 21 countries in general math skills, with only Cyprus and South Africa showing poorer results. Among academically-advanced students, the U.S. ranked 15th in math among the 16 nations that participated in the advanced tests, with only Austria ranking lower.

The study found that U.S. students did fairly well in both math and science at the 4th-grade level, but that by 8th grade, they ranked in the middle in science and below average in math. U.S. schools are apparently failing to build on those skills as students move into middle school.

In an article in the March 9 U.S. News & World Report, education writer John Leo offers some clues as to why American students performed so poorly. "The U.S. tolerates a high number of unqualified or barely qualified teachers - almost a third of math teachers and half of physical sciences teachers did not major or minor in these subjects at college." Another factor is that the teaching colleges are, says Leo, "pervaded by social attitudes that work against achievement, one of which is the heavy emphasis on feelings, subjectivity, and self-esteem at the expense of actual learning and thinking."

A Feb. 27 editorial in the Washington Times opined that "U.S. high school seniors are among the least prepared students on the planet in the fields of science and mathematics." The Times pointed out that, "In the 15 years since the landmark evaluation 'A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform,' inflation-adjusted spending has increased by more than $100 billion per year, representing a 35% increase per student." While teachers' salaries have also risen by nearly one-third, the Times stated that "it's nearly impossible to fire an incompetent teacher, and equally impossible for a mathematician or a scientist to become a teacher without first obtaining a time-consuming, irrelevant teacher's certificate from a college of education."

Added to the mix are the "dumbed down" curriculum standards released by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) in 1989 (and still in use). These standards call for decreased attention to such things as "complex paper-and-pencil computations" (including long division) in grades K-4, "practicing and memorizing . . . " in grades 5-8, and a general dumbing down of high school algebra.

According to education research anastudent." While teachers' salaries have also risen by nearly one-third, the stated that "it's nearly impossible to fire an incompetent teacher, and equally impossible for a mathematician or a scientist to become a teacher without first obtaining a time-consuming, irrelevant teacher's certificate from a college of education."

Added to the mix are the "dumbed down" curriculum standards released by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) in 1989. These standards call for decreased attention to such things as "complex paper-and-pencil computations" (including long division) in grades K-4, "practicing and memorizing . . . " in grades 5-8, and a general dumbing down of high school algebra.

According to education research analyst Mel Gabler, the NCTM "humors, conceals and tests ignorance. They ask students to problem-solve who have not first mastered necessary skills and concepts, and hide crippled math skills through the use of calculators." Gabler charges that "the NCTM rewards correct reasoning more than right answers, and favors open-ended problems with no right answers."

These standards have spurred the proliferation of "fuzzy math" textbooks, including the algebra text Secondary Math: an Integrated Approach (see Education Reporter, Dec. 1997). Professor Marianne Jennings of Arizona State University, who publicized a critique of this text, called it "Rain Forest Algebra." The book was decried by other math experts and railed against on the U.S. Senate floor by Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV), who called it "whacko algebra."

A comparison study of California math and science textbooks between 1963 and 1988 found that, over the 25-year period, 7th-grade textbooks moved up to the 9th grade. The later textbooks were more colorful and "slick," but the content had been watered down.

The state of mathematics instruction today is illustrated by the Pennsylvania parent who complained to her local school board about a math paper her child brought home. The paper explained that there were four birds in a nest and one flew away. The question was: "How do you think the bird felt that flew away from the nest?"


 
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