Why Math Education in The U.S. Doesn’t Add Up

In comparison to scores gathered from other countries, the U.S. is sitting far behind average. We manage to surpass most countries in science and reading but fall behind in math. To keep up with our rank, every three years the U.S. participates in a standardized test called PISA, which covers reading, math, and science for fifteen-year-olds.

The most recent test was taken in 2015 and, surprisingly, our math scores were the lowest they’ve ever been. Instead of improving our score of 483 from 2003, we suffered and scored a 470. We had a 13-point drop. Alternatively, the test for 8th graders and 4th graders, the TIMSS, has shown improved math scores. They have increased by approximately 20 points each since the original test in 1995.

With the drastic drop in our PISA scores and even with the overall improvement of our TIMSS scores, it seems apparent to me that we need to change the way with teach math to Pre-12 students? What are we doing that other countries are not, and where do we stand in comparison to them?

The U.S. Vs. Everyone Else

As these tests were taken internationally, the countries participating tend to compare their scores with other countries. The U.S. placed well in both reading and science but hit well below the bar for math, ranking 36 out of 65 countries. Luckily, the problem was easily identified after taking a survey of the student’s approach to learning mathematics.

Memorization seems to be the leading method instead of learning and application. Students are focusing more on trying to remember the problems and their specific uses rather than discovering how to apply it to other problems. Memorizers had the worst performance scores on the test in comparison to those who relied upon other methods. Their scores reflect those of someone who is almost half a year behind other students.

The U.S. had some of the most memorizers, even surpassing the students in South Korea, a country well known for their repetitive and memorization-based learning. American schools consistently approach mathematics procedurally, teaching sets for memorization and application.

What Should We Do?

To counteract our declining scores, strategies have been developed to teach students math in a way that will stick. They’re using an open, conceptual, inquiry-based approach. This faces the common issue of teachers not having enough time to cover math topics in-depth without having to skip on other common core requirements that they are forced to teach.

The strategies do not focus solely on teaching student’s math, they focus on sharing their research-based techniques with fellow educators. They offer lessons and tasks that engage with the student and teacher to create a trustworthy bond as the basis of their mathematical learning. Students require a number sense or a feel for numbers. Once they achieve this, they are more likely to understand and apply the techniques. They will be able to use math creatively and flexibly.

If math continues to be misrepresented within the classroom, it is unlikely and near impossible for our scores will improve. We claim to have a great education system when we compare it to other countries, but how accurate are we? Not very if we are not able to straighten up and fix the system.

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