Instruction & Curriculum

Math Education: Why U.S. Students Fall Behind

The failure of math education in the United States has several reasons. After looking at the results of two international tests that we participate in, I can suggest some of the reasons for this problem. The PISA (The Programme for International Student Assessment) and TIMSS (Third International Mathematics and Science Study) are international tests that industrialized countries have agreed to give. The results of these tests are analyzed by subject so that it is a fair comparison. For many cycles of this testing the U.S. has ranked lower in math and science than most other industrialized countries. In this article I am going to share some of the reasons why I believe this is the case.
About the Assessments
PISA is given every three years. Its information is gathered by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The results are based on assessments of 15 year old students internationally in math, science and reading.
TIMMS data comes from tests given in grades four and eight. The tests are administered every four years. IEA (International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement) sponsors TIMMS. In the U.S. the data is managed by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) which is part of the U.S. DOE.
TIMMS also studies the teaching of math and science in participating countries. I have been fortunate enough to view TIMMS videos of math instruction from around the world. The difference between how American math teachers present topics and how those in other industrialized countries is quite interesting. In the U.S. it is most common to see algorithms taught, followed by students working out a number of practice problems using the algorithm. In many other countries the algorithm is only taught after the students experience group problem solving. At this point they are able to more easily use the algorithm.
Brain Research
We know more about the brain and how we learn today than we ever have. One piece of information that is essential to math education is the fact that rote memorization is not the best method of learning math. Thinking and talking about math is. It has also been found that timed tests are not the best way to evaluate students. The brain does not function well under time constraints. If you want more information about this brain research please check out the article by my fellow author Teresa Cooper.
National Curriculum
Many of the countries that outperform us in math education have a national curriculum. This allows all students in public schools throughout the country to learn consistent skills. A national curriculum means that if a student moves from one area to another there will be little change in what is taught. My fellow writer, Lori H. Rice, explained the idea of a national curriculum in a recent article. A national curriculum does not mean that everything is taught the same way. It simply means that there some consistency in instruction from location to location.
Teachers as Professionals
Looking at math education in countries like Finland, Japan, and Singapore we see teachers being treated as professionals. They have planning time that is not taken from them to cover classes. They also have subject meeting time where they can discuss topics and issues with their peers. It is recognized that they know about child development. They are not pressured by those who are not trained in a subject to change their method of teaching because a parent doesn’t understand the new method.
In countries like Finland, Japan, and Singapore teachers being treated as professionals. Click To Tweet
Let me sum up what I believe are the reasons that American students so not do as well in international math tests as others in industrialized nations.
1. We have an extremely mobile population. Many families move from state to state for better jobs, to be near family and for health reasons to name a few. With different curriculum in different states students who move often don’t catch up. A common set of topics in each subject would avoid these problems.
2. U.S. teachers are asked to do too many non-teaching activities when they could be doing research to enhance their teaching.
3. In addition to parents questioning what is being taught and requesting change in methodology we have teachers who continue to practice outdated methods. I am not saying that American teachers don’t know their subject matter but that the constraints of their schedules do not always allow them to keep up with new research in math education.
Looking into the future we must learn to adapt our teaching to what our current students will be facing in the job market. They will not be working at one job or career their entire lives. They will be working at jobs that require them to think critically as well as think outside the box. How do we best teach for the jobs of the future? I am curious to hear your thoughts on this.
we must learn to adapt our teaching to what our students will be facing in the job market Click To Tweet

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