American students are lagging in math and science and trailing countries like Canada, Czech Republic and China, the National Center for Education Statistics concluded in a 2009 report.
The study compared the ability of 15-year-old students with other students from countries that are part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in solving real-life mathematical problems. It found that students in the US are below average in math and placed in the bottom quarter of countries that participated and trail nations such as Estonia, China and Finland. More than half of the participating countries outscored U.S. kids.
And it’s not just the young ones—American high school students aren’t grasping basic math concepts as well as their counterparts in leading industrialized nations, according to the Program for International Student Assessment.
There are many theories on why U.S. students lag behind their peers abroad in math, but most critics agree that the education system, their teachers, and their parents can have a profound impact on how well our students do in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM).
The U.S.’s education system has long been criticized for relying on standardized testing, which can teach children how to take a test rather than what is on the test. Coupled with the fact that the U.S. is a more diverse country than most of the nations that participated in the study, and has a large portion of minorities who traditionally score lower on standardized tests, the U.S. was sure not to come out on top.
The country that did come out on top in the study is a nation that has rejected the idea of standardized testing altogether. Teachers in Finland focus on students grasping the concepts in lessons and not simply regurgitating them for tests.
That’s why it’s so important for kids to be encouraged by their teachers in STEM subjects. Seventy-two percent of students in 3rd to 12th grade think a person needs to do well in science and math to get a good paying job in the future, but as they enter high school, they are less likely to believe that science and math are necessary for workplace success, according to an American Society for Quality survey. The report found that the drop was related to the scores that teachers received for connecting subject material to careers in science and math, and students’ ability to pursue them.
Because of a shortage of math and science teachers, some critics of the education system suggest paying teachers in areas of critical need (math, science, foreign language and special education) more money. The National Education Association, which represents teachers, argues against such a proposal. “Simply being a teacher of a hard-to-staff subject does not equate with effective instruction,” the organization said in a position statement in 2009.
So how can the U.S. ensure that good math and science teachers will be heading to our classrooms?
In January, President Barack Obama announced a $250 million public and private effort to increase the number and quality of STEM teachers. As part of this effort, the presidents of more than 75 public universities have committed their schools to preparing 10,000 science and math teachers in the next five years. Beyond this benchmark, it seems that parents and teachers need to be encouraging students—especially underrepresented women and minorities—to pursue science and math careers.
The support of students’ parents has been shown to be crucial to a child’s continued interest in science, technology, engineering and math. Making kids aware of the range of science and engineering careers available and their relevance to society works to attract more men and women to STEM careers.
Students in high-scoring math and science countries like China and India feel parental, peer and community pressure to achieve high academic goals, according to Two Million Minutes, a documentary film on global education. But the major difference in their countries and the U.S. was that abroad, parents take primary responsibility for their child’s education. Indian and Chinese parents often organize their lives around their child’s studying, extra tutoring and educational exercises on par with the physical exercises like high school and team sports that can take up a lot of time, energy, and money. In India and China, parents are deeply involved in their child’s education, and their encouragement seems to make a profound difference in how their children learn in school.
Though the Barbie doll that proclaimed, “Math is hard” is off the shelves, many still believe the sentiment. A striking number of U.S. adults are not confident in their math abilities. This attitude towards math and science can impact the way their children look at school subjects. In elementary school about as many girls as boys have positive attitudes toward science. A recent study of fourth graders showed that 66 percent of girls and 68 percent of boys reported liking science. By eighth grade, boys are twice as interested in STEM careers as girls are. Gender differences in self-confidence in STEM subjects start in middle school and increases thereafter, with girls being less confident in their math and science abilities, and boys being more likely to see those in math and science fields as “nerds.”
These “nerds” are in some of the country’s most important careers. The five highest paying jobs in the U.S. are all in STEM subjects, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, which tracks the salaries of college graduates.
The future jobs in important and high-paying areas like energy will go to workers proficient in math, engineering and sciences, according to the secretary of Education, whose office has been calling attention to the lacking math and science performance of U.S. students. Students from elementary school to college need individuals—teachers, parents, and peers—making the connection between doing well in STEM subjects and success in meaningful, high-powered positions.
“Our future is on the line,” said Obama. “The nation that out-educates us today is going to out-compete us tomorrow.”