U.S. math lag: It’s not just other people’s kids

Don’t blame poor kids for U.S. students’ mediocre performance on international math exams, write researchers in Education Next.  When the children of college-educated parents are compared, U.S. students do even worse than our international competitors.

Overall, the U.S. proficiency rate in math (35 percent) places the country at the 27th rank among the 34 OECD countries that participated in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). That ranking is somewhat lower for students from advantaged backgrounds (28th) than for those from disadvantaged ones (20th).

Some states — notably Massachusetts — compare well to OECD students, but they represent a small share of the U.S. population.

In Korea, 46 percent of the children of high school dropouts reach proficiency in math compared to 17 percent of U.S. children with poorly educated parents.

The U.S. ranks 30th in teaching the children of “moderately” educated parents. “The math proficiency rate (26%) for this group is again around half the rate enjoyed by Switzerland (57%), Korea (56%), Germany (52%), and the Netherlands (50%).”

Forty-three percent of U.S. children with college-educated parents are proficient in math. That’s lower than the rate for Koreans whose parents didn’t finish high school. “Countries with high proficiency rates among students from better-educated families include Korea (73%), Poland (71%), Japan (68%), Switzerland (65%), Germany (64%) and Canada (57%).”

“The U.S. education system is . . . weak at the bottom, no less weak at the middle, and just as weak with respect to educating the most-advantaged,” the analysis concludes. Or, as Education Secretary Arne Duncan said, our educational shortcomings are “not just the problems of other person’s children.”

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  1. No surprise there. We all know the 3’s and 4’s are being ignored in the classroom as the districts focus on turning 1s and 2s into 3s by providing instruction on only on the core objectives. In-the-know parents afterschool so their children have access to instruction in the rest of the grade level objectives.

  2. This should not be surprising at all, as many school kids and their teachers cannot handle basic math skills, so until this changes and we go back to drilling and memorization of basic math facts for Addition, Subtraction, Multiplication, Division, Percentages, and Fractions, we will continue to lose ground (sad, but true).

  3. Cranberry says:

    Massachusetts has the MTEL. The introduction of a tougher teacher licensure test was controversial in 1998, when about half the teacher candidates failed. Most had finished ed school.

    Many education schools in Massachusetts apparently now require their students to pass the MTEL before awarding them a degree.

    This is an interesting dissertation: http://scholarworks.umb.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1132&context=doctoral_dissertations

    “The Association Between Elementary Teacher Licensure Test Scores and Student Growth In Mathematics: An Analysis of Massachusetts MTEL and MCAS Tests.”

  4. PhillipMarlowe says:

    It would be charitable at best to describe the “analysis” by the usual suspects to be as valid as the Hitler Diaries Newsweek discovered in 1983.
    At least in the latter case, the fraud was easily identifiable.

  5. Such aggregate comparisons are of little value. It would be interesting to have data on US students of East Asian ancestry to compare with the East Asian results. That would tell us a lot more about the relative merits of the different educational systems. Also data on US whites to compare with European countries.

    • dangermom says:

      I’d like to see that, but I don’t know that it would tell us that much, unless we take outside tutoring into account. How many of our kids who are doing better at math are also getting extra tutoring in it? How many of them are using services that cater directly to Asian parents? An awful lot, from what I hear.

  6. cranberry says:

    I find it fascinating to observe the clash of cultures. To wit: education reformers and college-educated parents.

    In my opinion, most college-educated parents want their children to attend college. However, (IMO), the majority of such parents care much more about the social and athletic opportunities to be found in college than about the academic side of college life.

    Why do I say that? Well, how often do US children skip club sports to finish math homework? How often do they skip a weekend tournament to study for the final? Never? Yes, I think never about fits the bill.

    Do you think the people worrying about international test scores would take on football in Texas? No? Why not? Because it would create a firestorm? Yep. It would.

    Educated US parents spend much more time, energy and money (on the whole) worrying about their children’s sports activities than they do about their math grades, especially once their children present respectable grades. There is a lunatic fringe obsessed with the most selective colleges, but on the whole, when judged by time and money, sports rule the roost.

    So this whole effort to convince upper middle class parents that their children are Doomed will fall short. The parents would rather have their children become stockbrokers who played lacrosse at a D3 or D1 college and partied at fraternities, than post-docs running experiments in laboratories. In terms of financial success for their children, the UMC parents are probably right.

    • Unlike most of the rest of the world, competitive colleges require high-level extracurriculars, instead of relying solely on The Big Test results. I would be happy to do likewise – even moving extracurriculars from schools – but most would not. Also, I bet that the top-performing countries do not allocate vastly more resources to the lower end of the curve than to the upper. Too many bright and motivated kids are bored and unchallenged for most of their k-12 years.

      • cranberry says:

        “Unlike most of the rest of the world, competitive colleges require high-level extracurriculars, instead of relying solely on The Big Test results.”

        Yes and no? I think many parents enter the EC trap thinking that the sports path will get Junior into a better college. It works, for a very small group. I know at least as many other parents who find their high school seniors choosing to attend a less selective college, because they prefer the college’s team, coach, or league.

        Admission as a _recruited_ athlete (that is, an athlete the coach puts on his list) is different from admission for all other students. Be careful what you wish for, because the time commitment today is immense. (Yes, Momof4, I know your children were athletes, but the time commitment has increased.)

        Even then, for every successful recruit, there are the might-have-beens, who experience career-ending injuries in their sophomore or junior years of high school.

        • I should have made it clear that I was not talking about kids who seek athletic scholarships, but about needing an impressive extracurricular resume to get into competitive colleges – whether regional/national athletics, exhibiting at respected art galleries, or winning serious music competitions. Neither my

          • Kids nor the big majority of their friends played college sports – because of the time required. Those who did, did so because it made the difference between Northwestern and State U, financially. Extracurriculars just got them accepted.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        “Too many bright and motivated kids are bored and unchallenged for most of their k-12 years.”

        Of course, if they are trying to get into “competitive colleges [that] require high-level extracurriculars,” they probably don’t have the time or energy to do really challenging academics.

  7. The whiter states like Vermont, Montana, the Dakotas etc. seemed fairly similar to many of the European states. The lower ranking US states seemed to include a lot of southern states probably having high percentages of blacks.