As an Englishman I tiptoe slowly into the subject of why it is considered that Americans lag behind other countries in math proficiency. Whilst there may be some serious points to discuss on this subject, there are firstly some popular myths to put to rest.
The opening point I would make is that it seems to have become a habit through the generations to criticise the educational standards of our children. In the UK this year the results for our “A” level maths was over 90% succeeded. Almost immediately articles came out in the press stating that these students were not proficient, the exams were too easy. My opinion is that, to a certain extent, this position is being applied to the American students with respect of math proficiency.
The arguments as to whether the statement is true or not, has been receiving a lot of media attention for the past decade or so. For example in 2000 there were controversy over the “High Test” format in the State Education Leader.
Lorrie Shepard argued that the tests produced inaccurate results because it encourages students to answer specific questions in a certain way and, if the question is put in a different manner or context, this leads to in inability to answer. In addition, her view suggested that, because of the concentration on the test subject, studies on other areas of the curriculum suffered and children’s learning were adversely affected. The result reduced their knowledge and proficiency.
Michael Sentance on the other hand stated that the tests were necessary because it was the only way to ensure that students learn the correct curriculum subjects to a necessary standard and that without the tests, there would be no constructive way forward. The ECS itself say that they have found the reason to be because American students are still concentrating on area of maths that other nations have finished with in elementary school.
In my view the truth is somewhere in between the three thoughts.
Firstly, if there is a difference in standards internationally, then the American education system needs to study how other countries achieve their results and learn from it. This is preferable to having an argument for and against in public, which only leads to confusion in the minds of children and their parents. Another point to consider is that, if this is a continuing situation, the problem will get worse because the teachers of today, those suggested to have inadequate standards.
Finally I would question the hypothesis itself. In my view it may be inaccurate insofar as one is comparing different cultures, all of which have varying needs and requirements, What I am saying is that the American education system should ask itself “are we making a fair comparison and is it fair to our students in view of the differential that exists between the cultures of the US and say a country in Europe?”
If American maths standards are that bad, one has to ask where their innovative and investigative skills in matters of science and discovery come from.