America’s Bad Math Scores Are a Problem, Experts Say

Yves here. I welcome reader input, but if I were to hazard a guess or two about declining academic performance, some top issue would be the fallen status of teachers and with it, parental umbrage at having their kids depicted as doing poorly, which is arguably more likely in hard-skill courses like math. The obsession with preserving fragile egos is a bizarre and destructive cultural obsession.

I’ve told this story before, but during Covid, I had a house guest (yes, we were careful) who was a high school chemistry teacher in a magnet school in a poor county. I overheard her teaching a remote lesson. I politely told her that her class was different than the high school chemistry I studied.

She knew immediately what I was driving at, that it was shockingly dumbed down. She said that in California, schools are not allowed to hold a child back a year due to failure to master the material unless the parents consent. She had kids in her classes who are illiterate and others who are poor readers. That limits what you can teach.

By Jon Marcus, the higher education editor at The Hechinger Report. Produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet focused on education.

Like a lot of high school students, Kevin Tran loves superheroes, though perhaps for different reasons than his classmates.

“They’re all insanely smart. In their regular jobs they’re engineers, they’re scientists,” said Tran, who is 17. “And you can’t do any of those things without math.”

Tran also loves math. He was speaking during a break in a Boston city program for promising local high school students to study calculus for five hours a day throughout the summer at Northeastern University. And his observation was surprisingly apt.

At a time when Americans joke about how bad they are at math, and already abysmal scores on standardized math tests are falling even further, employers and others say the nation needs people who are good at math in the same way motion picture mortals need superheroes.

They say America’s poor math performance isn’t funny anymore. It’s a threat to the nation’s global economic competitiveness and national security.

“The advances in technology that are going to drive where the world goes in the next 50 years are going to come from other countries, because they have the intellectual capital and we don’t,” said Jim Stigler, a psychology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies the process of teaching and learning subjects including math.

There’s already ample and dramatic evidence of this.

Several largely overlooked reports, including from the Department of Defense, raise alarms about how Americans’ disdain for math is a threat to national security.

One, issued in July by the think tank The Aspen Institute, warns that international adversaries are challenging America’s longtime technological dominance. “We are no longer keeping pace with other countries, particularly China,” it says, calling this a “dangerous” failure and urging decisionmakers to make education a national security priority.

“There are major national and international challenges that will require better math skills,” said Josh Wyner, vice president of The Aspen Institute and founder and executive director of its College Excellence Program.

“This is not an educational question alone,” said Wyner. “It’s about knowledge development, environmental protection, better cures for diseases. Resolving the fundamental challenges facing our time require math.”

The Defense Department, in a separate study, calls for an initiative akin to the 1958 Eisenhower National Defense Act to support education in science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM. It reports that there are now eight times as many college graduates in these disciplines in China and four times as many engineers in Russia than in the United States. China has also surpassed the United States in the number of doctoral degrees in engineering, according to the National Science Foundation.

Meanwhile, the number of jobs in math occupations — which “use arithmetic and apply advanced techniques to make calculations, analyze data, and solve problems” — will have increased by 29 percent in the 10 years ending in 2031, or by more than 30,000 per year, Bureau of Labor Statistics figures show. That’s much faster than most other kinds of jobs.

“Mathematics is becoming more and more a part of almost every career,” said Michael Allen, who chairs the math department at Tennessee Technological University.

Tennessee Tech runs a summer camp teaching cybersecurity, which requires math, to high school students. “That lightbulb goes off and they say, ‘That’s why I need to know that,’” Allen said.

There are deep shortages of workers in information technology fields, according to the labor market analytics firm Lightcast, which says that there were more than 4 million job postings over the last year in the United States for software developers, database administrators and computer user support specialists.

With billions being spent to beef up U.S. production of semiconductors, Deloitte reports a projected shortage in that industry, too, of from 70,000 to 90,000 workers over the next few years.

All of these careers require math. Yet math scores among American students — which had been stagnant for more than a decade, according to the National Science Foundation — are now getting worse.

Math performance among elementary and middle-school students has fallen by 6 to 15 percent below pre-pandemic growth rates, depending on the students’ age, since before the pandemic, according to the Northwest Evaluation Association, which administers standardized tests nationwide. Math scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress fell by 9 points last year, the largest drop ever recorded, to their lowest levels in more than three decades.

In the most recent Program for International Student Assessment tests in math, or PISA, U.S. students scored lower than their counterparts in 36 other education systems worldwide. Students in China scored the highest.

Even before the pandemic, only one in five college-bound American high school students were prepared for college-level courses in STEM, according to the National Science and Technology Council. Among the students who decide to study STEM in college, more than a third end up changing their majors, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

“And these are the students who have done well in maths,” said Jo Boaler, who studies the teaching of math as a professor at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education. “That’s a huge loss for the U.S.”

One result of this exodus is that, in the fast-growing field of artificial intelligence, two-thirds of U.S. university graduate students and more than half the U.S. workforce in AI and AI-related fields are foreign born, according to the Georgetown University Center for Security and Emerging Technology.

Only around one in five graduate students in math-intensive subjects including computer science and electrical engineering at U.S. universities are American, the National Foundation for American Policy reports, and the rest come from abroad. Most will leave when they finish their programs; many are being aggressively recruited by other countries, such as Canada and the United Kingdom.

The economic ramifications of this in the United States are twofold: first, on individuals’ job prospects and earnings potential; and second, on the country’s productivity and competitiveness.

Every one of the 25 highest-paying college majors are in STEM fields, the financial advising website Bankrate found.

Ten years after graduating, math majors out-earn graduates in other fields by about 17 percent, according to an analysis by the Burning Glass Institute using the education and job histories of more than 50 million workers. That premium would be even higher if it wasn’t for the fact that 16 percent of math majors become teachers.

Knowing math “is a huge part of how successful people are in their lives and what jobs are open to them, what promotions they can get,” Boaler said.

A Stanford economist has estimated that, if U.S. pandemic math declines are not reversed, students now in kindergarten through grade 12 will earn from 2 to 9 percent less over their careers, depending on what state they live in, than their predecessors educated just before the start of the pandemic. The states themselves will suffer a decline in gross domestic product of from 0.6 to 2.9 percent per year, or a collective $28 trillion over the remainder of this century.

Countries whose students scored higher on math tests have experienced greater economic growth than countries whose students tested lower, one study found. It calculated that had the U.S. improved its math scores on the PISA test as promised by President George H. W. Bush and the nation’s governors in 1989, it would have resulted in a 4.5 percent bump in the U.S. gross domestic product by 2015. That increase did not occur.

“Math matters to economic growth for our country,” Wyner said.

This is among the reasons that it isn’t only schools that have been pushing for more students to learn math. It’s economic development agencies such as the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, which is trying to get more students into STEM so they can fill jobs in fields such as semiconductor production and electric vehicle design, in which the state projects a need for up to 300,000 workers by 2030.

“Math just underpins everything,” said Megan Schrauben, executive director of the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity’s MiSTEM initiative to improve STEM education. “It’s extremely important for the future prosperity of our students and communities, but also our entire state.”

The top reason young people ages 13 to 18 say they wouldn’t consider a career in technology is that it requires math and science skills, a survey by the information technology industry association and certification provider CompTIA finds. Forty-six percent fear they aren’t good enough in math and science to work in tech, a higher proportion than their counterparts in Australia, Belgium, India, the Middle East, and the U.K.

In Massachusetts, which is particularly dependent on technology industries, employers are anticipating a shortage over the next five years of 11,000 workers in the life sciences alone.

“It’s not a small problem,” said Edward Lambert Jr., executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education. “We’re just not starting students, particularly students of color and from lower-resourced families, on career paths related to math and computer science and those things in which we need to stay competitive, or starting them early enough.”

The Bridge to Calculus program at Northeastern where Kevin Tran spent his summer is a response to that. The 113 participating students were paid $15 an hour, most of it from the city and its public schools, the program’s coordinator, Bindu Veetel, said; the university provided the classroom space and some of the teachers.

The students’ days began at 7:30 a.m., when teacher Jeremy Howland roused his sleepy-looking charges by having them run exercises in their heads, such as calculating 20 percent of various figures he’d written on the whiteboard.

He wasn’t doing it to show them how to leave a tip. He wanted them to explain their thought processes.

“I can see the wheels turning in your head,” Howland told the sea of faces in front of him one early moning as knees bobbed and pens drummed on pages of paper notebooks crowded with equations.

The students’ daily two-hour daily calculus class got only tougher after that. Slowly the numbers yielded their secrets, like a mystery being solved. One of the students even corrected the teacher.

“Bada-bing,” Howland said whenever they were right. “Okay, now you’re talking math.”

Students used some of the rest of their time learning how to apply that knowledge, trying their hands at coding, data analysis, robotics, and elementary electrical engineering under the watchful supervision of mentors including previous graduates of the program.

“We show them how this leads to a career,” said Veetel, who said the program’s alumni have gone on to software, electrical and civil engineering, math research, teaching, medical, and other careers.

“They have so many options with math. Slowly that spark comes on, that this is something they can do.”

It’s not just a good deed that Northeastern is doing. Some of the graduates of Bridge to Calculus end up enrolling there and proceeding to its highly ranked computer science and engineering programs, which — like those at other U.S. universities — struggle to attract homegrown talent.

More than half of the graduate students in all disciplines at Northeastern, including those that require math, are foreign born, university statistics show. In his field of engineering management, “80 percent of us are Indian,” Suuraj Narayanan Raghunathan, a graduate student serving as a Bridge to Calculus mentor, said with a laugh.

The American high school students said they get why their classmates don’t like math.

“It’s a struggle. It’s constant thinking,” said one, Steven Ramos, 16, who said he plans to become a computer or electrical engineer instead of following his brother and other relatives into construction work.

But with time, the answers come into focus, said Wintana Tewolde, also 16, who wants to be a doctor. “It’s not easy to understand, but once you do, you see it.”

Peter St. Louis-Severe, 17, said math, to him, is fun. “It’s the only subject I can truly understand, because most of the time it has only one answer,” said St. Louis-Severe, who hopes to be a mechanical or chemical engineer and whose gamer name is Mathematics Boss. “Who wouldn’t like math?”

Not everyone is convinced that a lack of math skills is holding America back.

“We push so many kids away from computer science when we tell them you have to be good at math to do computer science, which isn’t true at all,” said Todd Thibodeaux, president and CEO of CompTIA.

What employers really want, Thibodeaux said, “is trainability, the aptitude of people being able to learn the systems and solve problems.” Other countries, he said, “are dying for the way our kids learn creativity.”

Back in their classroom at Northeastern, students spent a brief break exchanging math jokes, then returned to class, where even Howland’s hardest questions generally failed to stump them.

They confidently answered as he grilled them on polynomial functions. And after an occasional stumble, they got all the exercises right.

“Bada-bing,” their teacher happily responded.

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  1. John Makowiec

    I taught math in a public school for 35 years.The change in standards isn’t something that is new.What the difference in standards was from when I started to when I retired was drastic. Topics I taught to my 7th and 8th grade students when I started eventually were pushed back so they were taught to 10th grade students when I retired. As far as most parents were concerned , they were more interested in the grade than what their child learned. Administrators were like the parents. The only thing they were interested in was what percentage of the students passed. I remember being questioned by an administrator about my grades.I told them they could assign any grade they liked as long as they signed the they assigned the grade.I could go on about why so many students don’t perform. In a nut shell it was attendance and lack of parents support.

    1. Dick Swenson

      I want everyone who uses the word ‘math’ to define the meaning of that word. In elementary schools, it must mean ‘arithmetic.’ In high schools, it generally has some sort of ‘algebra.’ ‘geometry’, or , ‘trigonometry’ component. Just how do we judge success or failure in these topics? Why do medicos need trig? Who can define the type of geometry (plane, spherical) taught and why it is taught?

      My beef is with the casual and poorly defined concept of mathematics and what benefit it brings to students and society. How is success measured?

      What does the ‘m’ in Stem mean? This entire topic is extemely fuzzy.

      1. caucus99percenter

        And when you get to college the paradigm changes again, completely.

        In K-12, math questions are typically “find, i.e. calculate, the numerical answer.”

        In college, once you get beyond the introductory and/or strictly “applied math” levels, the typical math assignment asks the student to “prove the proposition that ….”

  2. Gavin

    In a shocking twist, those same employers who bemoan the low math scores….. also don’t want to increase the PAY for those math-related jobs and careers.

    There is absolutely not anything resembling a lack of graduates from US schools with the proper qualification to fill open US STEM jobs. The problem for employers is that the people who would otherwise take those jobs are the legitimately smart ones.. who will go where the pay is greatest. Sure, everyone’s maximization function for career satisfaction is a little different — but usually the tradeoff in the business world appears to be to step a little away from the technical challenges to get a higher salary/benefits compensation package.

    If you actually want Top Engineers, Michigan Economic Development Corporation, you’re going to have to tell those companies to suck it up and raise salaries. By a lot. Who wants to bet they’re just going to keep whining?

    1. Ultrapope

      Thanks Gavin, 100% agree with this comment.

      The Bureau of Labor Stats has an excellent article on the whether there is a STEM shortage or surplus. Their conclusions:

      1. The STEM labor market is heterogeneous. There are both shortages and surpluses of STEM workers.
      2. In the academic job market, there is no noticeable shortage in any discipline. In fact, there are signs of an oversupply of Ph.D.’s vying for tenure-track faculty position
      3. In the government and government-related job sector, certain STEM disciplines have a shortage of positions at the Ph.D. level […] and in general […] due to the U.S. citizenship requirement.
      4. […] software developers, petroleum engineers, data scientists, and those in skilled trades are in high demand; there is an abundant supply of biomedical, chemistry, and physics Ph.D.’s; and transient shortages and surpluses of electrical engineers occur from time to time
      5. The geographic location of the position affects hiring ease or difficulty.

      I imagine there are very few people out there who think STEM education isn’t worth improving. The relevant questions are how should it be improved and for what purposes. If the purposes is “to beat India and China” then one solution which presents itself is to bar those students from studying in the US. Most in the STEM field recognize how damaging that would be. Unclear if policymakers recognize this as well.

      1. DF

        What also gets overlooked in these discussions is that engineering (i.e., the main set of high-paying STEM fields) aggressively weeds out a lot of students, who then switch to other majors.

        Another thing that gets overlooked is that really high pay for some software jobs (i.e., the >$250k/yr pay for high performers at Big Tech companies) is probably skewing the salaries upward for software engineering jobs. Moreover, the high pay gets mitigated somewhat by being required to live in a really expensive metro.

        So yes, you can make a lot of money in some STEM fields, but you have to be really good at it. You also may be disappointed by the limited buying power of your high salary.

    2. ArvidMartensen

      The people who did the tech jobs keeping factories running, the skilled jobs needing muscle memory, maths and science as well as long on the job learning, mostly seemed to lose status from the 1970s.

      Around the time the new breed of shiny, young, wet-behind-the-ears-but-know-everything MBAs started to infiltrate businesses. When the new mantra was that all management jobs were interchangeable.
      So an MBA who helped run a car factory could then segue over to equally successfully run a precision instruments factory (probably the equally successfully bit was true, but I bet that uni researchers didnt look at that so as not to kill the golden goose)

      A lot of the work of these young MBAs in the 80s and 90s was working out how to cut employee numbers to the bone. As Peter Drucker said once, downsizing is where people who don’t know what is going on get rid of the people who do.
      So young people, looking at which way the wind was blowing, headed for the ‘management’ jobs where you just get ‘your techo’ to do the maths for you. And now they might be finding that ‘your techo who does the maths’, can’t.
      The US has been deskilling itself for 40 years, while beating its chest as the biggest gorilla on the block. Reckoning incoming at 12 o’clock.

  3. Louis Fyne

    Death by 1,000 cuts from every vector.

    One vector: know/mastering math is a geometric curve…one gets better x% a year. pre-K to 12, every year build upon the prior.

    1st grade teachers can’t cram to fix 2 years of being behind, nor can 10th grade teachers cram—unless pupils and parents put in the extra work at home.

    which obviously some families don’t have the time or the skills to do.

    It’s pretty amazing and depressing that as a society we have gone nowhere (or perhaps even gone backwards) since the 80’s math film (inspired by real events) °Stand and Deliver”.

    so much for the progressive arrow of time

    1. Avalon Sparks

      Just have to give a shout out to “Stand and Deliver” – I really love that film so much!!

    1. Gavin

      I can’t help but wonder if right-wing trolling as a profession took a wrong turn many years ago, constantly looking for more theaters of conflict in the so-called “culture wars” solely to distract from wild Republican incompetence at every level.

      When Karl Rove and Republicans all sneered at the Reality-Based Community and its dumb idea of basing judgements on facts…. only Republicans thought this would never come back to bite them.

      The only “point” that’s obvious from your links is that you’re someone who doesn’t get invited to parties.

    2. furnace

      It’s so tiring… no, the only side fighting the “culture wars” is the one that talks about it constantly. Before getting worried about “queer math”, one should be worried that teachers’ pay is awful, school infrastructure is rotting, kids have no public place to socialize, and a myriad other concrete problems that can be resolved with investment.

    3. Glossolalia

      Of course math education has been fallen under the so-called “culture wars” or “struggle for social justice”. There are now DEI departments everywhere with salaries and budgets to justify, so you’d better believe they will find the structural racism in math and sell a program to fix it.

  4. Adam1

    The first item I’d like to point out is that the number of kids taking SAT’s and the like has plummeted since covid as the scores are no longer used in college admissions in so many colleges these days.

    A real problem I’ve seen in NYS is that since we switched to “common core” the focus has been on problem solving, not on the performance of mathematics. I have no theoretical problem with including problem solving within any academic learning, but it boils down to how you’re implementing it. I’ve lost my mind a few times trying to help my kids with math homework and my college and graduate school background is full of advanced math. It’s shocking how many homework questions I’ve read where the wording is so vague or broad it can be almost impossible to actually decipher what you’re supposed to answer. The problem solving part can then become so demoralizing – and I mean especially for middle schoolers and even 9th graders – it’s no wonder so many of these kids are struggling with the skills.

    1. earthling

      Yes. Poor materials. Despite the proliferation of paid-better-than-teachers ‘curriculum specialists’. Instead of producing books, learning materials, and tests which are crystal clear and represent the accumulation of human knowledge on how to teach standard essential material, they put out brightly colored garbage presented in random order. Teachers have been known to dig out math texts from the 1920s which do a better job than what we have now.

    2. Laura in So Cal

      This! After my kid’s school switched to common core techniques when he was in 6th grade, I really struggled to help him because the methods were so weird and the materials were convoluted. It was like they were written by someone who either didn’t understand math or actively hated it.

  5. Asophia Thunderdome 2000

    In Sweden something, as far as I know still unexplained happened with education. In the beginnings of the Social Democrats movement there was an emphasis on education for the purpose of class warfare. You could fight the power only if you knew what they knew and why not a little more. There was a high knowledge bar that you were aiming at and for all that wanted and could.

    Then in the 70s beg of 80s some sort of idea that it is unfair to those of lesser study capacity to have high knowledge requirements started to creep into the system. Sometimes from some sort of “left wing people”. Too young to know exactly who but I understood the message. By the end of my pre-university studies there were ideas floating around claiming that it is not important to know things but to know where to find what you need to know.
    The acceleration of the fall of the Swedish educational system coincided with the neoliberal frontal attack on Sweden after Olof Palme was murdered.

  6. Michael Fiorillo

    I’d watch out for anything the Aspen Institute says about education: it’s been attacking teachers, their unions and public education for years.

    That said, as a retired NYC public school teacher – high school ESL and English – I can testify to the simultaneous hyping and dumbing down of teaching and tests.

    Not all that long ago, NYC offered three kinds of high school diplomas: a vocational diploma, a general diploma and a NY State Regents diploma, which signified college readiness. With the intensification of corporate education reform (i.e., attacks on public education) during the Bush ll years – enabled, by the way, by Teddy Kennedy, as were trucking and airline deregulation – and the ideology that “Everyone Must Go To College,” the vocational and general diplomas were eliminated, and all students required to pass subject Regents exams in order to graduate.

    This presented a problem for my students, who were all recent immigrants to the US, and had been studying English for a year or two, at most. How could they be expected to pass an exam that was intended to judge them as “college and career ready,” when many of them could not write a sentence in English? And when you looked at the exam (I’m speaking only of the English Regents exam here), you might have thought it was rigorous, requiring four essays on non-fiction and literary topics over two days. Our students mostly did better than the citywide averages in the universal languages of math and science, but the English Regents was a source of dread for them.

    Well, the test looked demanding, and might have convinced the general public that standards really were being improved – this while the reading of entire stories and books was being eliminated, as per the Gates Foundation-promulgated standards – but when you looked at the grading rubrics the teachers had to follow, it became apparent that the standards had in fact been lowered on the back end. The grading rubrics were such that spelling, grammar, sentence structure, and logical argumentation were easy to game: as long as you sort of understood what the kid was trying to say (and believe me, ESL teachers can tease out meaning from the most incomprehensible of word groupings). Thus, it was relatively easy to pass kids who could barely, if at all, write a correct sentence in English. Add the reality that schools are themselves graded on their graduation rates, and you can see where the incentives lead.

    But what were we supposed to do? Fail a twenty year-old who had been in the country a year, had often graduated from high school in their own country, was trying her/his best, and was probably working nights to help support the family? If we were going to be the exacting teachers the public was being told we ostensibly were, these young people would have either dropped out or been bringing their own kids to school in strollers while they took the Regents for the Nth time.

    You have to teach students starting from where they are, not where you think they should be, and the realities of immigration, family and job instability, technological distractions, et. al. make for the mess that teachers are trying to cope with, and all of which are weaponized by those seeking to profiteer off of privatizing the schools.

    1. eg

      Your granular experience belies the sweeping claims and simple solutions which are the stock and trade of edu-swindlers everywhere. Real progress will never be made as long as credentialism holds sway and the thankless work of maximizing the potential of individual students is ignored.

  7. Funemployed

    I think the bigger issue here is widespread incompetence at child guidance and nurturance. It’s not hard to get most children to do what you want, even something as useless and unpleasant as algebra, if you can get over yourself for long enough to figure out where they are at and give them a reason to. In other words act like a bonafide adult. As a society we seem to have lost this capacity to a terrifying extent.

  8. Steve Ruis

    The same employers whining now are also the same employers trying to dumb down most the entry level-jobs that offer. Remember the cash registers at fast food restaurants with pictures on them, rather than numbers? By expanding the number of potential applicants, they can drive down entry-level wages. (Note, legislatures are doing that to the teaching profession, too. Reducing the minimum quals to teach, to ensure enough applicants. It has nothing to do with hiring qualified applicants.

    Gavin has it right. Employers can get all of the qualified applicants they want, were they to raise their wages, but that conflicts with their current focus, which is greed.

  9. timbers

    Why should American students care about math skills when this nation has a decades old program to import foreigners via H1B work visas who are to take US jobs requiring math skills? Why teach them skills they are not intended to use in the work place because we’ve decided those jobs will go to non Americans? And also we should eliminate spending on education in math since we’ve decide they are not needed. Because spending money on not needed skills would be wasteful.

  10. King

    The article goes from arithmetic to calculus but only seems to imply a more is better recommendation. There is also a long way from passing basic tests and being able to quickly and practically apply skills. As great as calculus is, not everyone is going to be making use of it regularly.

    The linked Bankrate article has some very slippery language to my reading. It implies these might be statistics for new or all graduates with the declared degrees but I suspect it’s for every person working in each field. Notably many of these are ones where people either move to management or leave and don’t spend a lot of time in the unemployed but still in that particular field categorization.

    Architectural engineering rose to No. 1 based on salaries that grads typically earn and the ease of landing a job, along with the comparatively low percentage of grads who went on to earn advanced degrees. The median income for workers who said they majored in architectural engineering was $90,000, and just 1.3 percent of degree holders were unemployed.

    The ArchE program I know of is a five year program, with a Masters.

    1. Louis Fyne

      —As great as calculus is, not everyone is going to be making use of it regularly.—


      Some of the world’s best users of applied physics are arborists/lumberjacks.

      But I bet if someone is an excellent lumberjack, they have the foundations to master calculus or trigonometry too—-just need the guidance, encouragement, support, and desire.

  11. GramSci

    Time for a word in praise of Luddites. What has STEM education given the world? The Salk vaccine, yes. But also two world wars and the A-bomb. A man on the moon. Google. mRNA vaccines. Crack high-speed traders. Lotsa groaf.

    Which isn’t to say USian education is good; only to say in some ways, however unintentionally, not as bad as it was.

    1. earthling

      Fair enough, we have had all the innovation we can take, and perhaps should stop throwing all of our treasure at technology, blindly hurtling towards our self-driving world while people get driven into wars and misery.

      That said, I meet too many adults, and teens holding down jobs, who have no idea how to calculate a percentage or square footage, or know when they are being propagandized, so whatever we could do to raise the quality of our thinking capabilities would certainly help all of us.

    2. Glossolalia

      Some other examples of what a STEM education has given the world:
      – Robotic surgery, artificial hips and knees, pacemakers, etc.
      – Incredibly safe aviation
      – Incredibly safe automobiles
      – Free, real-time communication virtually anywhere on earth
      – Renewable energy

  12. EMC

    Of course we need more math proficiency, more STEM focus so we can compete in the world. Because who are we if we can’t compete? I’d like to argue we need more education in history, literature, and foreign languages so we can figure out how to get along in the world, a more critically neglected skill.

    1. Kilgore Trout

      Better knowledge of world history would make citizens less likely to fall for the lies our betters tell us about ( for example) our proxy war against Russia in Ukraine. Blinken would not get away with lies about Babi Yar. Many Americans are unaware of the Soviet Union’s overwhelming role in defeating Hitler. Ask most Americans, and they’ll say the US defeated the Nazis. The absence of Russians at the 70th anniversary observance of D-Day was an intentional effort to rewrite history, and part of the decades long effort to demonize Russia and Putin.

  13. eg

    This math hysteria reliably crops up every time America is rattled about its place in the world — at least as far back as Sputnik.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      This whinging about STEM does indeed sound very familiar. Starting 2005 the National Academy of Sciences kicked off a whole series of meetings and reports addressing the shortfalls of new and existing STEM trained workers: culminating in the report “Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future” which came out in 2007,
      I also recall an earlier report from around 2001 or 2002 concerned with the “Gathering Storm” — the demise of STEM skills developed for exploitation by the remaining u.s. industry. However, I could not find that report although a search did yield several later echoes of the 2007 report. [The “Gathering Storm” word pattern echoes the title of Vol. I of Churchill’s history of World War II: “The Gathering Storm”.]

      If job and income prospects are so great for STEM graduates I can only sorrow at the job and income prospects for graduates in other areas of study. Looking at the median income figures at the Bankrate website, I would add a question whether the median salary did anything to take into account the limited number of years many STEM workers can remain employed. In STEM employment when you hit a certain age and salary level — you can find yourself invited at short notice to discover new challenges and opportunities well before you can qualify for Medicare or Social Security.

  14. SocalJimObjects

    I can think of at least three upsides:
    1. Less recruits for Wall Street. The world does not need more people working on the Grand Unified Theory of Passing Worthless Papers Back and Forth At Ever Higher Speeds.
    2. Less recruits for the Defense Industry. When I think of “the technologies for the future” done in the United States, I think of more saber rattling. Think of the West’s failing weapons in the Ukraine …. that’s a positive.
    3. Less recruits for the Internet Giants. Similarly, the world does not need more people working on How To Make Online Advertising Even More Awesome!!!

    Making The World Safe from America’s Three Favorite Industries is more important than good math scores. The Indians never invented nukes, ad banners nor Credit Default Swaps, and that’s a good thing.

  15. Gavin

    Note that the overall Hechinger Report is funded by

    Bill and Melinda Gates: The OG funders of the overall mission to dumb down US kids through Charter Schools.

    And other usual suspects including Zuck, Ford, Carnegie.

    Eeesh. If you get all of these people in favor of something, the work product is going to be terrible. Given that the results of Charter Schools compared to Normal Public Schools don’t pass a simple t-test [can’t say with any certainty that year-to-year performance differences aren’t the result of chance and not skill] … one sincerely wonders why they keep pushing on this string.
    At least we can be consoled with continuing proof that even multi-billionaires fall prey to the sunk-cost fallacy!

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      This is ad hominem, which is a logically invalid form of argument and also a violation of our site Policies. You need to show where the argument is wrong.

  16. The Rev Kev

    I guess in the heady days of the 90s when America stood alone as a superpower, it was decided that the plebs did not really need to know the basic building blocks for an education – reading, writing and maths. Under Neoliberalism, most of them were only going to be reduced to neo-feudal peasants so why educate them when that could be a danger to the system? The children of the top 10-20 % would still be going to exclusive quality schools for their education and a career path in government or corporate life and reducing the competition to them was considered a side benefit. But now that we are once ore in a multipolar world, they are discovering that they still do need those peasants to be educated so now they have decades of the destruction of public education to undo. Personally I do not think that they will try unless their is high profits in it.

    1. Glen

      As much as I agree completely that returning to a multipolar world should provide some incentive to stop destroying public education, I suspect there’s just too much easy money to be made. In fact, it probably puts any remaining good universities and public education systems in the EU and other allied “Western” countries at risk of similar “improvement”.

      Look for the WEF motto of “you will own nothing and be happy” to be augmented with “you will know nothing and be smart”.

    2. Rob Allain

      The tables have turned – now it’s the lack of math skills that could be a danger to the system. Perhaps our coterie of social influencers could turn this around and make knowledge and math cool again in the eyes of the student population.

      1. Gavin

        The US education system creates more than enough US citizens at the desired STEM degree levels. There never was a problem with degree output.. and IMHO there never will be. Not sure how else we’d measure “math skill”..
        The problem is always with the companies’ interest in paying the competitive salary required to convince the smart person to choose the STEM job over the many other career paths they will have available.
        Tiktok videos won’t solve that problem….

  17. Reply

    Math as fun, and for so many of us, it was. There was an elegance and structure that enticed kids and then rewarded them with even more as they studied. Some did math just because they could. That led to related subjects like computer science and what much later became the STEM classes.

    In all my years enjoying math, the concept of a participation ribbon or of dumbing down the material never entered the frame. Showing my age and looking forward to tutoring my grandchildren to encourage them to pursue those passions for elegance and structure, or whatever else brings that twinkle to their eyes and that zest for learning.

  18. juno mas

    So here’s the issue with teaching mathematics. It’s a pyramid of knowledge. Students cannot skip any one block of understanding to climb the pyramid. If K-12 instruction is poor then advancing up the pyramid is difficult. (Find and pay quality math teachers!) Forget about parent frustrations, they probably don’t understand the math pyramid themselves.

    A fluent understanding of the number system (Base 10, Octal, etc.) is essential. It’s not hard, but not well taught in many cases. Once you ‘get’ the number system you can move on to quadrant graphing and the explanation of negative numbers (and why they are important). Then you can use physical applications of mathematics using Trigonometry— students can ‘see’ the utility of their mathematical skills.

    Then it’s on to Algebra. It is not useless, it is actually essential. It is Algebra that explains important number manipulation processes: the Rules for Numbers, Exponents, etc. (It is these Rules that allow you to transform an indeciferable equation into something recognizable.) Up the pyramid we go.

    Now, I agree that Calculus is best performed by the more talented math student. However, the study of Statistics is derived from the basic concepts of the calculus. And we all know why the study of statistics is important. While it does NOT reveal causation it can assist you on where to LOOK for causation

    I’m currently on a community college campus. There a flyers on every building entrance seeking Math tutors. Why? Because the promoters of DEI have eliminated remedial classes in mathematics for incoming students; “it’s demeaning”. No! They are essential to climb the pyramid.

    1. Rolf

      @juno, agree, and thanks for this nice comment. Math is definitely a pyramid — and defects within the knowledge base propagate, rendering the superstructure weak and unstable. But once students have it, that understanding opens the door to so much more: they will find that they recognize the same components in any science: physics, chemistry, engineering applications, etc. Basic math is also a core competency in any trade, from welding to cabinetmaking, math is the great leveler and equalizer.

  19. KLG

    Anecdatum: Many years ago my 4th-grader son showed me a “math” problem that was required by the curriculum standard. He was having trouble finding the answer, and that was because there was no answer. I don’t remember the exercise, but the problem was basically a bit of proto-algebra that consisted of two equations and three variables. By definition the problem could not be solved. When I took this up with his teacher during a parent-teacher conference, the reply was “The students are supposed to estimate the answer.” My reply was that was not math. She agreed but was required to use this “module” by the state office of education. My son was able to transcend this nonsense, but how many students could not, for whatever reason?

  20. Tom the Spreadsheet Guru

    The problem with math education was and is bridging the gap between concrete and abstract.
    If educators expect all kids to progress at the same rate, some kids struggle, decide they don’t like math and give up.
    In my middle school and elementary school teaching career I have seen that over and over.
    And it makes sense because only a few kids have developed conceptual skills by the 4th grade, ages 9 and 10. Educational psychology researchers have been telling us that since Piaget did in the 1950’s.
    When the math curriculum hits fractions, the struggle begins. Then the idea of ratio is presented, then proportion. And so, solving a proportion includes the concept of a variable.
    Solve for x: 5/6 = x/30
    Differentiating math instruction allows keeps students working hard and trying to figure things out. Once they have confidence in their problem solving skills, then the battle has been won.

  21. caucus99percenter

    Recently there was the exciting discovery of an aperiodic monotile (here, two charming Numberphile videos on the topic):

    In the context of math education, this leads me to wonder whether advanced high school and introductory college curricula nowadays should — assuming they don’t already — include
    • not just the calculus, trigonometry, analytical geometry, probability, and statistics as in my day, but also
    • elements of abstract algebra (group theory etc.), number theory, graph theory, and combinatorics?

  22. polar donkey

    If the US is so worried about the high percentage of foreign born people getting advanced degrees in the US, then returning home, wtf are we training them? Those foreign born students pay full tuition and those American University administrations would sell their grandmothers for the money.

    On a side note, I put my 9 and 7 year old sons in program called Code Ninjas. It costs some money but I think it will be a better skills investment than all baseball/volleyball aau cults families spend a lot more on in hopes of their son/daughter getting a scholarship to college.

  23. J. A. Bujes

    Where to begin?
    — curriculum is both being dumbed down and speeded up. My kids started algebra and geometry one or two years earlier than I did, but they studied a subset of those topics.
    — lack of imagination: not all roads lead to calculus; it has been turned into the new Latin. There is so much more to math than calculus.
    — lousy texts: multicolored, distraction inducing nonsense. No sense of the beauty with which math builds on basic concepts
    — the draw of financial institutions for math whiz kids
    — underpaid, undervalued teachers.

  24. Cat Burglar

    The kids need to be promoted through the grades on a dumbed-down curriculum and graduate from school because they face personal disaster otherwise. Getting their tickets punched is their only road out of the precariat. The school system is intended to provide a cheap, rapid sorting of talents and an economic credential; a real, capacity building education system is not being funded, let alone advocated.

    The Dublin Review of Books article in today’s Links on Turchin’s End Times: Elites, Counter-Elites, and the Path of Politcal Disintegration is worth a read when thinking about the declining math scores. In Turchin’s view, cross-class relative and absolute immiseration drives a need to get credentialed and out of precarity, leading to an overproduction of elite aspirants that form counter elites. The dumbing down of the math curriculum parallels the increase in the Gini Index in the US over the same period.

  25. willow

    Root cause is a failure of policy makers to properly understand the underlying dynamics of the economic returns to education from schooling (research following on from Mincer’s original work). It has become blind belief, like so many things in the policy space, that just keeping kids in school is what ‘really’ matters. So the singular focus is on school retention rates above all else. To improve retention rates you need to remove barriers that will push kids out of school such as minimum competency levels or academically competitive environments (like doing harder maths). And while Mincer returns to schooling are still positive (though research is lagged..), they are now only just positive overall and largely due to the pool of students who now fail to stay in school being a smaller proportion with increasing exceedingly bad outcomes. Indicating that Mincer returns to schooling are now from (data) selection effects and not human capital effects. You’re seeing the same thing happening in higher education.

  26. Jeremy Grimm

    This little quip from the tail of this post:
    What employers really want, Thibodeaux [president and CEO of CompTIA] said, “is trainability, the aptitude of people being able to learn the systems and solve problems.” Other countries, he said, “are dying for the way our kids learn creativity.”
    is almost comical. Training? Trainability? Most training these days is training in “Diversity” or “Agile whatever”. Not too many math skills are involved in either.

  27. 4246

    Then you get the misfits. Learning disabilities were not addressed in the ’50’s. I was told that I was as smart as the class brain, and I knew that was not correct. A couple of University students tried to help me over the years on math, but no one saw the big picture of what my problems were. Being told to just study harder was yet another thing to fail at.

    Two years ago I read an article on treating adults with ADHD, and it all made sense that that was what I was dealing with for all these years. I then tried to get help with this, but the medical pill pushers jerked me around for seven months, then gave me a phone interview, and said my symptoms did not warrant treatment, and anyway they would not give me the medication they used due to my heart conditions.
    One less Engineer or Geophysicist available solving problems.

  28. Tyronius

    But wait – dumb citizens are a feature, not a bug!

    America’s political leaders are dumbing down schools at an ever accelerating pace, and the benefits to their careers are clear; people who don’t think for themselves are easier to manipulate with campaign ads. Part of that is math. It doesn’t affect their careers to watch America’s competitiveness slip away…

    Soooooo, do we want stupid citizens or not? I would say start with political leadership. How do we incentivise them and hold them accountable for better school outcomes?

  29. Synoia

    Was there any discussion of US Teacher’s pay?

    That appears to be a major issue for retaining and attracting STEM teachers,

  30. James

    I lead a software development team at an AI startup – and I don’t think either employers or the government care about this because they are happy to higher STEM professionals who have arrived as immigrants.

    When we advertise a job opening – only one of the 10 resumes I receive are from people who grew up in North America. Why is the government going to sweat K12 when we can just skim the cream of the crop from Iran, India and of course Ukraine? Our universities have to be decent – but they have an economic incentive to be good because they get a lot of revenue from charging foreign students the full price of their education.

    I do think this will catch up with us – but not for a while.

    (The reason that our universities have to be decent is that is the main way we attract and audition foreign talent. They study here, get a job right out of university and get a one year work visa – if they work out they get to stay, if they don’t work out their work visa expires and they go home. Either way they paid the full cost of their tuition – unlike students who were born here … another reason the government has an economic disincentive to prefer native born STEM professionals).

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