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Posted at 10:16 AM ET, 01/13/2012

The problem with math education

This was written by Timothy S. Norfolk, who is the interim chair of the Department of Mathematics at The University of Akron, where he has been teaching since 1984.

By Timothy S. Norfolk

While most of what I have to say below concentrates on mathematics (my area of specialty), much applies equally to the sciences and engineering.

It is crucial to our economic survival that we do better in mathematics and science. Global competition requires manufacturing to be made more efficient and more automated. Incredibly sophisticated mathematical tools are used in the analysis of large data sets in medical research and economics, and in forming government policy on energy and other resources.

There was an effort to correct this weakness decades ago, when it was perceived as a military issue. The launch of Sputnik in 1957 scared us so much that we embarked on a program to strengthen the system. That momentum carried us to 1975, when the end of the Vietnam War, cutbacks at NASA and economic problems allowed our national attention to drift again.

Indisputably, the U.S. K-12 system continues to fail in mathematics: multiple international studies show that our performance lags below the median. A study two years ago indicated that only 15% of 12th-grade US students were academically ready to take a college-level course, which means that they have not mastered  high school Algebra I. Thus, 70-80% of college-bound students require expensive (and largely ineffective) remediation. And this learning lag is not confined to the average student: the top 10% of U.S. students achieve at only the median level for their South Korean counterparts.

In the past, we have made up for the deficiency by importing talent from elsewhere (which explains why the typical university science department looks like the United Nations). From the 1930s to 1960, it was political refugees from Europe. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was economic refugees from the United Kingdom. In the 1980s and 1990s, they came from the former Soviet Union and China. That flood of talent has slowed to a trickle, as most return home for better opportunities. So we are now thrown back on our own, home-grown resources, and their inadequacy is painfully exposed.

One important factor inhibiting our progress is the negative attitude to mathematics that is common in our culture, even in university circles. Recently, a professor of English in “Academe” magazine wrote that the technical fields might impart useful skills, but “real” critical thinking takes place in the liberal arts. I have heard similar comments throughout my 37 years in higher education. Yet studies show that mathematics achievement is the most robust predictor of college graduation rates, independent of academic major.  I would argue that its place is at the very core of higher learning.

But it is a hard core, in two senses: both strong, and demanding. So the solutions proposed over the years have involved attempts to avoid facing up to the difficulty. Some have tried to pin the blame on a group of people (lazy teachers, bad students, or the government). Others look for a quick fix, emphasizing pedagogy and technology, to make the learning easier; this is doomed to defeat, since the intellectual challenge is inherent in the subject. 

My experience leads me to believe that the most effective methods involve knowledgeable teachers with a passion for the material, and a set of expectations which are as hard as possible, while attainable.

This requires time (which is running short), resources and most importantly, the will to deploy them. We have pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps at least twice before (during World War II and the Cold War), and I believe we can do it again in the face of our latest challenge.

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