Academic journal article Education Next

Solving America's Math Problem: Tailor Instruction to the Varying Needs of the Students

Academic journal article Education Next

Solving America's Math Problem: Tailor Instruction to the Varying Needs of the Students

Article excerpt

In the 21st-century workplace, mathematical capability is a key determinant of productivity. College graduates who majored in subjects such as math, engineering, and the physical sciences earn an average of 19 percent more than those who specialized in other fields, according to the American Community Survey of 2009 and 2010. Precollegiate mathematical aptitude matters as well: math SAT scores predict higher earnings among adults, while verbal SAT scores do not.

These facts help explain our national focus on improving math performance. International comparisons made possible by standardized testing reveal just how American students lag behind their global peers (see "Are U.S. Students Ready to Compete?" features, Fall 2011). Judging the nation purely by its own historical performance yields the same conclusion. Between 1972 and 2011, real GDP per capita doubled in the U.S., but the average math SAT score of college-bound highs-chool seniors and the proportion of college graduates majoring in a mathematically intensive subject barely budged.

Concern about our students' math achievement is nothing new, and debates about the mathematical training of our nation's youth date back a century or more. In the early 20th century, American high-school students were starkly divided, with rigorous math courses restricted to a college-bound elite. At midcentury, the "new math" movement sought, unsuccessfully, to bring rigor to the masses, and subsequent egalitarian impulses led to new reforms that promised to improve the skills of lower-performing students. While reformers assumed that higher-performing students would not be harmed in the process, evidence suggests that the dramatic watering down of curricular standards since that time has made our top performers worse-off. Even promised improvements in the lower part of the distribution have at times proved elusive, a point illustrated below by the disappointing results of a recent initiative to accelerate algebra instruction in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district.

America's lagging mathematics performance reflects a basic failure to understand the benefits of adapting the curriculum to meet the varying instructional needs of students. Recently published results from policies such as Chicago's "double dose" of algebra, which groups students homogeneously and increases instructional time for lower-skilled math students (see "A Double Dose of Algebra," research, Winter 2013), support differentiation as the best way to promote higher achievement among all students.

Decades of Hand Wringing

Figure 1 uses data from the American Community Survey of 2009 and 2010 to track a basic indicator of math proficiency over a 75-year span: the proportion of college graduates who majored in a math-intensive subject (math, statistics, engineering, or physical sciences) in each cohort. The sample is limited to male college graduates in order to address possible concerns about changing gender composition of the college-graduate population, although the figure looks similar if females are included.

Fluctuations in this indicator over time support a basic argument: American attempts to homogenize the math curriculum in secondary schools, although sometimes successful at improving the performance of the average student, have come at the cost of preparing the nation's most promising students for mathematically intensive study.

At one point in time, 3 college graduates in 10 majored in a math-intensive subject. These cohorts grew up in an era when advanced math topics--algebra, geometry, and trigonometry--were considered "intellectual luxuries," worthy of instruction to a select few, but of little to no relevance for the vast majority of the workforce. From the 1930s through the mid-1950s, educational practice codified these beliefs. Less than one-third of all high-school students enrolled in algebra, substantially fewer in geometry, and only 1 in 50 proceeded to trigonometry. …

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