Study: U.S. students lag in math, reading

Are U.S. Students Ready to Compete? asks Harvard’s Paul E. Peterson and colleagues in Education Next.  In math, 32 percent of U.S. students test as proficient. Students in 22 countries perform significantly better.

. . .  58 percent of Korean students and 56 percent of Finnish students performed at or above a proficient level. Other countries in which a majority—or near majority—of students performed at or above the proficiency level included Switzerland, Japan, Canada, and the Netherlands.

Massachusetts is the only state in which (slightly) more than half of students are proficient in math.

Fifty percent of Asian-American students, 42 percent of whites, 15 percent of Hispanics and 11 percent of blacks test as proficient in math.

All students in 16 countries outperform U.S. whites, the study finds. In addition to the usual suspects, that includes Germany, Belgium, and Canada.

I’d like to see more analysis of Canadian schools. The culture is a lot closer to ours than Korea or Finland. If Canadians can learn math, Americans should be able to learn math.

The U.S. does better in reading.  Whites read about as well as all students in Canada, Japan and New Zealand. Once again, Massachusetts’ students are the most likely to be proficient.

About Joanne


  1. I’ll bet curriculum quality is a big factor, as is teacher quality. Few schools use Singapore Math or something of that quality, and the commonly-used spiral curricula (Everyday Math, Investigations etc) are seriously flawed. I’ve known too many ES-MS teachers that were really weak in math, disliked math and/or went into ES teaching because they wouldn’t have to take any math in college (and hadn’t taken the top math classes in HS) to have much overall confidence that most of teachers at those levels really know enough math to be able to teach it well. BTW, my kids went to some of the best schools in an affluent suburban county. Their HS math in that area, however, was outstanding; at least at the honors and AP levels.

  2. Momof4, you’re absolutely right on all counts of what you say about most ES teachers.

    Joanne, I’d like to know more about what Massachusetts is doing RIGHT. I’d also like to see a study of what’s going on in Canada.

    • Massachusetts has strong teachers’ unions. That factor clearly correlates with high-achieving states, and weak or no union protection clearly correlates with low-achieving states.

      Discuss among yourselves (however, you can’t refute; these are the facts).

      • So let’s see, you’ve got a sample size of one but as far as you’re concerned not only is there a correlation but the causation’s a foregone conclusion.

        Hmmm, I think someone’s just a trifle desperate to make the unmakeable case.

        Perhaps you should expand a trifle on your hypothesis. I’m just not seeing the connection between lousy teachers not having to worry about their jobs and kids learning.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        “Massachusetts has strong teachers’ unions” all across the state. One might then assume that the entire state was doing well educationally. However, Boston and Springfield and Lawrence and Lowell and a number of other systems do poorly. What is different in those systems? Poverty and a relative paucity of stable two-parent families.

        “Discuss among yourselves (however, you can’t refute; these are the facts).”

      • charlatte99 says:

        roger-I strongly refute your statement that b/c MA has strong teacher’s unions that is why they have strong test scores. Bull hockey. Michigan has one of the, if not the, biggest/fattest/strongest teacher unions in the nation and our test scores are pretty close to the bottom of the barrel.
        Crimson is more spot on w/ the reason..their demographics.

    • Massachusetts also has a highly educated population (54% of those aged 25-50 have a bachelor’s degree or higher) that is mostly white & Asian (86% of the population) and has relatively low rates of both divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing. Demographically they’re a lot closer to the high-performing Northern European countries than they are to the U.S. average.

      • Human biodiversity is real says:

        All of those things are associated with a strong future-time orientation, which you may recall that Seattle public schools once tried to brand “cultural racism”.

  3. Well, how can you teach a subject you either disliked in school or have no working knowledge of. ES-MS math should be taught by specialists in math, and not teachers, for the end result will be more students who just don’t ‘get it’ when it comes to math.

    I’m not surprised that many US students do so poorly against 22 other nations in math and science. Many students today can tell you who the top college or pro athletes are, or who their favorite music artist is, but are not able to add 1/2 and 7/8 to get the correct answer, or tell you what a half of 1/4th is.

    • I agree, except that I have a concern regarding a specialist coming in once a day for an hour to teach math. Will the students care about or connect with specialist? Will math just be a chore that the “daily visitor” imposes upon them. Will the existing teacher be completely off the hook–“Sorry Johnny, I can’t help you with that. It is really tough and I don’t like math, and math is hard, and it is not useful for the rest of our class anyway.”

      I hope I sort of illustrated/explained my concern. I don’t know what to do about my concern, but it seems that there exists some unintended consequences/unforeseen ramifications in having a specialist teach math once a day.


  4. My MIL taught 3rd grade for decades but couldn’t help my DD with her 4th grade Singapore math lesson one time when we were visiting & I was busy with my younger child. This is a woman with a M.A.T. and an EdD. and she couldn’t explain simple fractions with the textbook in front of her to help. That did not inspire much confidence in the math knowledge & ability of elementary school teachers.

  5. Oh, please. Curriculum quality has nothing to do with it. The link seems down, but I’ll bet there’s something weird about the test.

    Most posters here seem eager to blame something, and their ignorance is amazing.

  6. How often does Paul Peterson churn out a study proclaiming that all our kids are dumb as posts? If not him, one of his reformy cousins (they all start to look alike after a while). Why it is even news when they burp out yet another one?

  7. Caroline,

    I wouldn’t say kids are as dumb as posts, but what I consider basic knowledge that I was responsible for knowing in public schools 30+ years ago, should be the same standard today (and it’s not).

    A student who doesn’t get good instruction in the basics at home and in elementary school (reading, writing, spelling, math, etc) is going to struggle their whole lives over concepts that I take for granted on a daily basis. I’ve seen teenagers and young adults who cannot fill out a job application (I’ve seen their parents do it for them), prepare a resume’, handle a skills assessment, or basic mathematics, not be able to read a ruler, or be able to tell time with an analog watch.

    What I’d like to know is exactly what are we taxpayers that as a nation spend roughly 600 BILLION annually (at all levels) to education some 52 million persons aged 5-18 getting for our money?

    I’d have to say, ripped off…

  8. Well then I guess this proves NCLB, high-stakes testing and scripted curriculum are failures.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      I think it is unquestionable that the way high-stakes testing was implemented under No Child Left Behind has been a failure.

      However, there has not been enough actual use of scripted curricula to make any sort of judgment.

    • Massachusetts was a leader in adopting high state standards backed by high-stakes testing. The state put a lot more money into K-12 to buy the cooperation of the teachers’ unions.

      • I grew up in Massachusetts, and it had good schools (at least in the suburbs) long before the state adopted the standards & MCAS tests in the 90’s. I went through in the pre-MCAS era while my youngest brother went through in the post-MCAS era, and I didn’t observe any appreciable positive impact. If anything, I saw a bit of a negative impact. Teachers started having to justify field trips and projects by correlating it with something on the state standard for that grade. If they couldn’t justify the activity by citing some standard, it couldn’t be done, no matter how educational it might be 🙁

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      True that. In order to get a diploma from a Massachusetts public high school, you have to pass a state exam in English Language Arts, a state exam in Mathematics, and a state exam in one of the basic sciences.

  9. Not too many schools in my neck of the woods use a scripted curriculum like Saxon for math. Most of them around here seem to use the notoriously awful Every Day Mathematics.

    The district in which we lived from 2006-2009 adopted EDM after rejecting Singapore claiming it was “inappropriate for English Language Learners”. I don’t think the top-performing countries let political correctness stand in the way of adopting an excellent math curriculum.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      Not relevant, but very funny, is that English is the primary language of only about 1/3 of the population of Singapore. Almost 70% of the kids in Singapore should qualify as English language learners.

  10. MOMwithABrain says:

    In our district, we changed math curriculum about 5 years ago. We switched from Harcourt’s Math Advantage (Traditional math) to Everyday Math (fuzzy math). YEars ago students were doing well in math. Now the tutoring centers are full of students. In fact, Sylvan Learning Centers didn’t offer math tutoring UNTIL we switched.

    I notice how reformers NEVER point to the lousy curriculum that teachers are forced to use. Our teachers had no voice in this decision but it was sold to them as if this was going to help students understand math. Now you can get them to privately admit it’s lousy.

    I just hope someday more people writing about this issue will highlight the difference in math curriculum. Luckily I live in an affluent area where parents can afford the tutoring. If this garbage is in the inner city schools, those kids are doomed.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      One of the things that kills me about my union is that it puts a lot of time and energy into opposing merit pay and high stakes tests but hardly says anything about crappy curriculum.

    • My district also adopted EveryDay Math curriculum as the be-all, end-all to all Math issues. It has been a colossal failure. Unfortunately, it took 3 years of failure, and our entire district labeled Academically Unacceptable, for anyone to admit a mistake was made.

  11. North of 49th says:

    Joanne said:

    I’d like to see more analysis of Canadian schools. The culture is a lot closer to ours than Korea or Finland. If Canadians can learn math, Americans should be able to learn math.

    You won’t likely find a study of “Canadian Schools” per se, given that there is no national school system, curriculum, or federal presence in K-12 education. But you are correct that there are many similarities.

    Here’s a video on the reforms and changes in Ontario that have led to better performance:

    And if you didn’t read it before, this report from the OECD, while it doesn’t focus on math exclusively, does deal with math achievement:

    Ontario developed a department specifically to co-ordinate raising standards in classroom instruction in both literacy and mathematics, the Literacy and Numeracy Secretariat:

    Here’s a report on their impact as of 2008 or so;

    More resources than you need, I”m sure.

    Homeroom teachers, not specialists, teach elementary mathematics; however, the standards for teachers are higher in most places in Canada than in the U.S. They need an honours bachelor’s degree in a recognized subject area, and a post-graduate B.Ed, plus specific qualifications for different age groups or specialties. Canadian elementary teachers typically come from the top third of their university graduating class — a difference from the U.S.

    The math curriculum in most provinces is similar to that in most U.S. states (based on NCTM standards), but few Canadian schools use U.S. textbooks. Through the Literacy and Numeracy secretariat, most Ontario school districts now have math coaches who assist school staffs in developing their math program and improving student outcomes (a coach would be assigned to a group of schools, not just one school).

    A difference that does stand out is that low-performing schools are flooded with additional resources, professional development and Professional Learning Communities to develop better teaching, assessment and promote student achievement. This seems to be more effective than the punishment model of NCLB. We also have the advantage of good medical care for our students and in most cases, adequate housing, so some of the negative effects of poverty are ameliorated. We also have much less standardized testing than the U.S., and the provincial tests in Ontario stress essay-type answers and higher-level thinking, rather than multiple-choice responses. The cognitive level required is quite high; there is concern that the mechanics and basic skills do not get enough attention in the testing.

  12. WestSeattleDan says:

    Hey Crimson Wife,

    You wrote: “The district in which we lived from 2006-2009 adopted EDM after rejecting Singapore claiming it was “inappropriate for English Language Learners”. I don’t think the top-performing countries let political correctness stand in the way of adopting an excellent math curriculum.”

    Your District does as little research as most districts.

    Fact: In Singapore approximately 50% of students come from non-English speaking homes (Tamil, Malay, Mandarin Chinese). Good thing your district leaders did not tell these Singapore kids that “Singapore Math is inappropriate for English Language Learners”.

    All Math classes are taught in English in Singapore.

    In Seattle Everyday Math is used in every school except 2.

    Schmitz Park elementary uses Singapore Math and its 5th graders had the third highest pass rate on state math testing. That was #3 out of 1089 schools in WA State…. the District continues with … Everyday Math, Connected Math Project, and the Key Curriculum Press “Discovering Series” for high school….. extremely high math remediation rates follow at community college for the students who graduate.

    Four School Directors who support this nonsense are running for reelection.

    [email protected]

    • Yeah, I don’t think the district administrators were worried about the East Asian, South Asian, or Eastern European immigrant kids even though they are all “English Language Learners” as well. If anything, those students tend to be among the highest performing in the entire district.

  13. What is the aversion to Singapore Math (i.e. – traditional) in this country? Are the morons in charge of school districts afraid that students might actually learn math well, and be able to unlock the door to a number of careers which are rewarding.

    The comment about Singapore Math being in-appropriate for ESL/ELL students was almost enough to make me laugh…I guess no one tells the population of Singapore that, do they?


    • Bill,
      You have to learn to follow the money.

    • District administrators are so focused on trying to get underperforming demographic groups to pass the STAR test that they don’t appear to care about anybody else. That’s why I’d like to see NCLB revamped to include performance targets for advanced students. The top Asian and European countries are getting 1/5 to 1/3 of their students to the “advanced” level in math, while the U.S. is getting a measly 1/20.

  14. The aversion to Singapore here has to do with the fear that grade school teachers aren’t strong enough in math to teach it. Most American curriculums have a good deal of teacher support, while the original Singapore doesn’t. There is an American Singapore which appears to have more teacher support, but seems to be missing some things that make Singapore unique.

    I think Singapore being inappropriate for ESL students is funny, too. The reform curriculums are very chatty with a good deal of reading (and writing) involved. Singapore is very straightforward with mostly math needed for solutions.

  15. No, it’s not. The aversion to Singapore is that it will do no good at all for kids of lower cognitive ability. Singapore is fine for smart kids who don’t like math. It’s not for genuinely low ability kids.

    And the same people who said that Singapore Math was not for ELL students probably didn’t have a clue that anyone speaks English in Singapore. They are using ELL as a codeword for kids who are far behind in school.

    • palisadesk says:

      So, how do they teach the lower ability kids in Singapore? I presume you mean kids with, say, IQs of 70-90, not those below that (who are probably educated in special programs). Slow learners are generally “included” in Singapore (and Japan). Do they not use “Singapore Math” with them?

  16. There’s not going to be a lot of 70-90 IQs in Singapore, or Japan. They have a slightly higher mean IQ than the US, and a smaller standard deviation.

    And come on. It’s not like every single kid in Singapore is a math rock star. SOme of them don’t do well. It’s just not as many.

  17. Mark Roulo says:


    Do you have a source for the smaller Asian IQ std dev?

    I’ve seen the claim before, but never been able to find a source.

  18. You know, I read it both online and in books and now that I go looking for it (based on your request), I can only find the one National Review cite–and I can’t even find the author of that. So I’ll qualify the SD until I can find the cite, but point out that a higher mean IQ, even with the same SD, means that there will be far fewer low IQ people–and that in a normal distribution, there still will be kids who fail to learn.

    • Enough of a difference to make it a good idea to use Singapore Math throughout Singapore, but not throughout the US?
      Has anyone examined the possibility of using Singapore Math with lower-ability kids, but at a slower rate? I suspect that that many students would learn more from slowed-down Singapore Math than they would from Everyday Math or Investigations at any speed.

      • Enough of a difference to make it a good idea to use Singapore Math throughout Singapore, but not throughout the US

        Probably, yes. And there’s a whole big range of possibilities between the high cognitive ability Singapore Math and the utterly moronic but not good for low cognitive ability Everyday Math.

  19. Mark Roulo says:

    Thanks, Cal.

    Grrr … I’ve seen the claim, too, and can’t nail it down, either.

    Yep, even the same spread and a 1/2 std dev higher average makes for fewer kids in the “aren’t going to learn algebra” range.

    • But we’re not talking algebra or any of the higher math courses here, we’re talking arithmetic. The district that rejected Singapore Primary Mathematics in favor of Every Day Mathematics was a K-8 one. Maybe not everybody is cognitively capable of learning high school math, but even kids in the low-normal IQ range ought to be able to learn arithmetic if they’re properly taught with a solid curriculum.

      • It doesn’t matter what the subject is. Lower cognitive ability kids are going to learn slowly and less intuitively than high cognitive ability kids, as a rule. The achievement gap might be slightly less prevalent in grade school, particularly if top kids are limited to being tested on the basics. But it will still be there.

        And as I said above, acknowledging Singapore Math’s unsuitability for lower cognitive ability kids doesn’t mean that Everyday Math is a good idea.

        I suspect that the best way to teach low ability kids arithmetic is lots of direct instruction, drilling, and repetition coupled with spiraling back through to keep all knowledge reviewed. I think research backs this up, too, but if it doesn’t, it probably will the first time we get serious about proving the value of direct instruction and drilling for low ability kids.

  20. North of 49th says:

    I/2 SD is approximately how much higher Canadian kids score on the WISC, so a new version had to be produced with Canadian norms.

    So maybe that’s why they do better at math. Lots of the top students are from very racially and economically diverse backgrounds, however. Hard to know whether genetics or environment are the deciding factors. My money is on both.

  21. On race and IQ, check out

    Use the search feature. Jon Ray is an Aussie psychometrician with no concern about ‘political correctness’, he covers the topic from time to time in his education blog. I also recommend that you check out his many other fine blogs. Given his prolific blogging, I uspect he doesn’t get out much!

  22. I used Singapore with my sped son and it worked quite well. I used Primary Mathematics 3 when he was a middle schooler, using both the textbook and the workbook. It was very effective, particularly the targeted word problems.

    But, no curriculum that I’ve run into will work perfectly with lower IQ or LD issues. I had to supplement and stop quite a bit. However, Singapore’s sequence is much better than EM. That alone makes it a better fit for sped. It’s less chatty and more direct.

    Our district is adopting the American version of Singapore. The head guy came down to talk to teachers and administrators about the changes. He specifically said that more teacher support was the reason behind them since Singapore teachers are specialists. But I already knew that having talked to teachers and a couple of principals over the years about why they wouldn’t adopt it.

    The other problem is the state tests with their “mile wide, inch deep” questions. The original Singapore doesn’t cover the topics that are on our tests like EM does, which is why so many districts adopted these curriculums in the first place. I have no idea if the new version remedies that or if the school just has to supplement, or if the powers that be finally changed the tests.