Americans lag behind in math education for several reasons. First the “soft” repetitive curriculum we have in elementary school places our children at a disadvantage. Children spend from second grade to fifth grade trying to master the same concepts of: Multiplication, Division and fractions. These concepts should be mastered in one year not three. Second students aren’t exposed to algebraic or geometric ideas in elementary school. In other countries children begin learning geometry in elementary school. Subjects such as algebra and geometry are integrated throughout the curriculum in other countries. In the United States we expect our students to learn it all in one year when other countries are developing it over several years. Furthermore, outside of the US most countries begin Algebra I in the seventh grade per the TIMMS and TIMMS-R study done by Greene, Herman & Haury in 2000. Therefore, United States students are disadvantaged by middle school because of our curriculum. Algebra I is typically studied in the ninth grade in the US and only honors students are allowed to take it in eighth grade. Of course there are some schools that are exceptions and allow a select few to study it in the seventh grade. Therefore, I believe we need to examine our mathematics curriculum itself. If our curriculum is behind then our students will be behind.
Furthermore, the culture in the US is at fault. From several years experience teaching calculus and advanced mathematics in a high school setting, parents often don’t encourage their students to take anything higher than Algebra II because they don’t want their child’s GPA to suffer. Sometimes I even hear things like: “My child isn’t going to be a mathematician so I don’t want him/her to waste time.” What they don’t realize is that they are limiting their child’s options in life, and that they have created a negative attitude towards mathematics. Other cultures in the world value math. No matter what their child is going to be they encourage education in mathematics. Furthermore, parents support students learning mathematics and teach them that it is relevant and necessary to learn.
I believe that two major factors contribute to the US being behind in mathematics: curriculum and cultural attitudes.