When the best and brightest aren’t really the best (or brightest)

It’s no secret that students in the U.S. stack up poorly against their international peers on math assessments. But even our best and brightest don’t match up with the highest achievers internationally, according to a new comparison.

In the Winter 2011 volume of Education Next, “Teaching Math to the Talented” — by Eric Hanushek, Paul Peterson and Ludger Woessmann — details how a considerably lower percentage of American students in the high school Class of 2009 were deemed “highly accomplished” in math than were students from other countries. In fact, 30 out of the 56 countries in the analysis had a larger percentage of students scoring at the advanced level than the United States.

Although much of the discourse around achievement centers on those who are currently underachieving, the report’s authors argue that this focus isn’t enough if we want to be a competitive nation. “Both federal funding and the accountability elements of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) have stressed the importance of bringing every student up to a minimum level of proficiency,” the authors say. “As great as this need may be, there is no less need to lift more students, no matter their socioeconomic background, to high levels of educational accomplishment.”

Even Massachusetts, the state with the greatest percentage of high-achieving math students, was still outperformed by students in 14 different countries. And in Mississippi, the lowest-ranked state, only 1.3 percent of students were highly accomplished in math — a result that 42 other countries surpassed.

So why are we falling so far behind even at the high end of the spectrum? It’s not that NCLB takes the focus off high-achieving students — an explanation the study’s authors consider but then dismiss. They don’t offer a different explanation.

The Hechinger Report’s Go Deep section on Math does look at an alternative explanation for the nation’s lower math achievement levels across the board: They might be the result of how we teach math.

In U.S. classrooms, teachers tend to cover lots of material superficially at the expense of having students master fewer skills that they can then build on, as teachers in other countries do. Or, as William Schmidt, an expert on math education at Michigan State University, put it: U.S. math curricula are typically “a mile wide and an inch deep.”

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These are truly scary statistics. And to hear that teachers are covering material superficially goes to show that teaching to the test is not working. We need to stop focusing on testing kids to death, which is what they hate the most, and instead concentrate on teaching them to love learning. This is the best thing we can do to ensure our kids will succeed in school.

Thank you for posting an article on this. It inspired me to write my own in response:

Marshall Barnes

The reason students do poorly in math is because it’s one of the most boring classes in the entire grade school experience and yet it doesn’t have to be. Until teachers and administrators and text book writers get that fact through their heads, you will see math performance scores be consistently below others around the world. I’m not saying that they teach it in some exciting, novel way elsewhere, but to get math into the heads of American youth who are distracted by so many other things that are much more exciting and novel, you have to ramp up the approach.

I had one teacher who caused me to swear off of math after my sophomore year, he was so bad. That was over 30 years ago and I actually liked algebra.

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