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Posted by on Dec 29, 2009 in At TMV, Education | 28 comments

Why Americans Are Dumb At Math

When it comes to math, Americans are really dumb. I know. I lucked out with a C in algebra and flunked calculus. Two totally unrelated stories in today’s news explore the reasons why.

Bob Sullivan, author of “Gotcha Capitalism,” writing for’s Red Tape Chronicles, says a government study reports only one in seven Americans are proficient in math.

Worse yet, only 1 in 10 women, 1 in 25 Hispanics and 1 in 50 African Americans were determined proficient.

This is simple stuff. While 42% could add two menu items and determine a tip, just one in five could calculate a mortgage rate. Four of five flunked when told to figure their gross weekly earnings after given an hourly rate.

Little wonder, Sullivan muses, consumers played a large role in the housing market collapse by buying $3,000 monthly mortgages with $2,000 earnings and installing granite countertops at 30% interest.

Of the 30 industrialized nations, the U.S. ranks 25th in math next to Serbia and Uruguay. Yet, America’s students are led to believe by their superiors they are the smartest in the world, Sullivan claims.

Which leads us to the second story, this from the Washington Post that implies Arne Duncan, President Obama’s Chicago friend and Education Secretary, is not cracked up as a savior the Obama people would like us to believe.

Chicago, the nation’s third largest public school system, was cited as a model for reform under Duncan’s tenure. But, in recent National Assessment of Education Progress tests, Chicago trailed Miami, Houston and New York while larger gains were recorded by Boston, San Diego and Atlanta. Even fourth graders in the much-maligned Washington D.C. schools improved twice as much since 2003.

In math, Chicago placed far down the pack.

No doubt Duncan improved performance since 1987 when it was called the worst public school system in American by former Education Secretary Bill Bennett. Among Duncan’s successes:

For more than seven years, starting in 2001, Duncan tried to rejuvenate his city’s struggling schools: jettisoning staff, hiring turnaround specialists, shutting down those deemed beyond hope. He pushed a back-to-basics curriculum, spawned dozens of charter schools and experimented with performance pay. State and federal test scores and graduation rates rose on his watch.

But critics say he lowered graduation standards and pushed unruly students to other schools that prompted more drop outs from the system. The Post:

Duncan’s record is of more than historical interest. He wields considerable power through the combination of his Chicago connections, shared with President Obama, and his oversight of billions of dollars in reform funding. The Education Department is dangling an unprecedented $3.5 billion in grants for school systems to turn around weak schools and $4 billion for states to pursue innovation.

You may wonder as I do is whether throwing all this money at schools will improve our mathematical illiteracy, especially if it is based on a flawed model.

Which returns us to Bob Sullivan.

Even by taking into account the blackboard jungle atmosphere in some urban classrooms, the quality of our math teachers is highly suspect.

“Study after study shows U.S. achievement falls off the cliff during middle school, when subjects like fractions and percentages are introduced — exactly the skills you need as a consumer or, for that matter, to move on to algebra, calculus and advanced sciences,” Sullivan says.

In 18 U.S. states, not even one elementary math class is required for certification.
Some teaching colleges allow admittance as long as students have math skills equal to their future students — that is, as long as they could pass a 5th grade math test.
It’s possible in some states to pass the teacher certification exam (Praxis) without answering a single math question correctly.
In Massachusetts, there’s a special program to reacquaint teachers with math. The man who runs the program says half of teachers can’t answer basic questions involving fractions and has concluded that many elementary teachers are “phobic” about math.
Teachers seem to be math-averse from the start. College bound seniors headed for elementary education have math SAT scores significantly lower than the national average (483 vs. 515).

American taxpayers as a group are equally paranoid with math. More than 20 million hire someone to pay for filing their 1040EZ tax returns which require 10 blanks to be filled.

The stories I linked are worth the time to read.

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Copyright 2009 The Moderate Voice
  • I call BS, teachers make decent money and get 3 months vacation. We just have to focus more on math and science, for too long there has been a slant on humanities, which while not to be avoided, are far less important to actually making you have some worthwhile skills. Next to literacy I can’t think of any discipline you need more when making big decisions in life. What we need is a race to Mars. The race to the moon sparked the largest bumper crop of scientists, engineers, and technological development we have ever seen.

  • merkin

    Let me, as an engineer who took a minor in math, give you one simple example of why we have problems, with a simple, cost free solution which virtually no one here will accept.

    Our students graduate from high school about one year behind the Japanese and Europeans. And yes it starts about the time in middle school when they are taught to manipulate fractions; add, subtract, multiply and divide them. But the other countries don’t have to spend as much times on fractions as the United States. In fact they spend about a year less. And why does the United States spend so much more time studying fractions? Because we still use the Imperial system of measure. The only major country that still uses it. The metric system is decimal based and doesn’t require the use of fractions.

    All we have to do is teach the metric system as the primary system and tell them to convert results into the English system when they need to. I worked in construction all over the world and this is how we worked for years in the United States, design in metric and only convert the result into the English system. The last ten years or so we didn’t even have to convert, contractors were willing to work in metric.

    • AustinRoth

      merkin –

      I have to disagree in basis with your conclusion, although what you stated is true in the facts.

      To me, the real issue is that the role of primary and secondary education has changed in the US. Previously, the goal of elementary and high school education was to identify those students with the aptitudes for further education and prepare them for college, while at the same time preparing those kids who were not on an academic track with skills that would allow them find work and function as adults.

      Now, because we have decided that every child should have a college degree, and ‘every child is equally special and talented in their own way’, the predictable results have occurred. The curriculum has been dumbed down, and grade inflation only adds to the problem.

      Primary and secondary schools today are designed to graduate as many students, with as high a GPA as possible. It matters not if they actually learned what they needed, or that 50% do not have the education, knowledge, or plain intelectual talent and drive to go to college and succeed.

      But no worry there, either! The vast majority of colleges and universities have dumbed down THEIR curriculum in lockstep.

      That leads to the other trend – college graduates that have little to no skills and analytical capabilities, but man, do they have GREAT self-esteem.

      If my wife and I had not supplemented our children’s education, there is no way my son would be an engineer today (btw – he, too, is a engineer with math minor), and my daughter would not be returning to school to obtain a medical degree.

      • merkin

        I have a daughter going to graduate school in civil engineering and a son who graduated as a chemical engineer and is now in his second year of medical school. Small world.

        My children went to private school through high school and then went to a public university. It worked out well for us because I still think this country still does the university level well. My children both went to Georgia Tech.

        I was only addressing the math aspect since that is the subject of the OP. However, in general, the problem is not so much that we don’t spend enough on elementary and secondary education. In fact we spend more than any other country in the world. It’s that we spend too much money on administration. There are more school administrators in the New York City Public School system than in Germany, which has 5 times the number of students. And the Germans believe they have too many administrators and are trying to cut down on them.

        The primary reason for the large number of administrators in the United States is our devotion to the idea of local control of schools. You have thousands of local school districts all facing the same problems and coming up with the same answers. Thousands and thousands of local school boards.

        If you want this level of local control you do have to pay for it and it’s large overhead of more than 40%.

        The system is perverse because we under pay teachers and over pay administrators. It means that your best teachers, in order to get higher pay, must become administrators. They go from being part of the solution to being part of the problem.

        • ProfElwood

          I’m all for efficiency, but a large part of the problem is state and federal control. I’ve talked to a couple of our school board members: by the time they’ve dealt with state and federal mandates on curriculum, procedures and budgets, there’s very little left for them to work with. Much of that administrative effort, by the way, is spent proving that they met the requirements for those mandates.

          For a little “fun” sometime, ask a public school teacher about Bush’s “no child left behind” policy.

          • merkin

            My point exactly. There are many levels of bureaucracies between the classrooms and the federal level. You talked to one of the many layers in between and they complained about the layers of bureaucracies.Excuse me but Duh.

            You need a overall authority to set goals and measure progress and the classroom level to execute it. Of course all of the intermediate levels feel they are absolutely vital and all of the other levels are nuisances. But they are wrong.

    • DaMav

      Interesting observation and suggestion. Not sure it would have a tremendous impact but worth consideration. Somehow I suspect the main problem lies elsewhere. We didn’t always perform this poorly as a nation.

  • PJBFan

    As somebody with a theoretical economics degree and a constructive minor in Pure Mathematics, I completely agree with Merkin. We spend too much time on fractions and the like because we still function in an arcane system of measurement. It’s time to ditch miles for kilometers, pounds for kilograms, and the like. I also think that we don’t require enough mathematics. Children are taught that it is too hard to do math. That math is boring and rote. I also think that the overbearing reliance on calculators is a huge problem We give our children calculators from day one. Instead, I manged to get through three Calculus based classes, one including a lot of multivariate calculus, with a simple scientific calculator. I learned to do calculus on paper without a slide rule. Simply put, we need to put effort into the teaching of Math, and finding qualified teachers.

    We also need to get rid of the obsession that American education has with the practical, and focus more on dealing with abstractions and esoteric issues. Just because a math problem has no discernible use, like all other things in school, it is designed to teach a method of thinking, not a practical skill. Many practical skills one learns are effectively out of date within a couple years, but learning how to think is an essential skill.

    • AustinRoth

      PJB – so you think our schools will miraculously start graduating better students by simply adopting the metric system?

      Have you participated in any school board proceedings lately? Have you directly dealt with the bureaucratic mindset that runs our schools, and truly, to the bottom of their souls believe that competition warps children’s delicate minds?

  • DaMav

    I wonder how much this has to do with ‘new math’ which entered the curricula, at least in California, at about the same time as the decline began. I remember having trouble helping my kids with homework, and getting a strong ‘butt out’ from the teachers who were convinced that new math was some kind of miracle of the modern age. Just an anecdotal question.

    • merkin

      I learned under new math and believe it is quite useful. People really begin to stumble in math when they learn it is not an absolute science but is more like a language. The new math started this process early using familiar arithmetic rather than waiting for higher math such as differential equations to make the point. For example, does 4 plus 5 always equal 9? No, it equals 11 in base 8, useful if you study computers.

      An example of an important math missing from Americans’ education almost totally is statistics. Most Europeans and Japanese take it in high school. Few college level Americans do. It’s very useful in production quality control for example. Not to mention it would save the embarrassment of having to explain to Europeans why our politicians go on the television and can spout absolute nonsense about surveys and no one calls them on it.

      I would like to point out a common mistake being made through this thread. It is that math achievement has declined in the United States. It has actually stagnated while the rest of the world’s has advanced. Math achievement in Canada is quite high, It improved along with the rest of the first world’s were the United States stopped, starting in the 70’s. Canada converted to metric in the early 70’s.

      • DaMav

        Thanks merkin. I couldn’t agree more with you on statistics having taken a healthy dose of it myself, but only in graduate school. I wish I had taken it sooner because it is constantly used to manipulate public opinion including mine before I gained the knowledge of the basics at least.

  • superdestroyer

    Look at the statistics. Elementary school is taught by women and a large number of those are black women. Those are the groups that are bad at math. Schools no longer have students memorize the multiplication and division tables. Thus students cannot do fractions or decimals. The students in Korean and Japan memorize such things because they are useful later.

    Image trying to determine limits in calculus if you cannot do the simplest math functions in your head.

    Americans are bad at math because the culture of primary education does not value math. Change that and the math aptitude will improve.

  • rudi

    How can we behind in math. Who came up with the exotic credit swaps and derivatives. Maybe we should teach kids Gaussian copula function or CDO, and fractions wouldn’t be a problem.

    A year ago, it was hardly unthinkable that a math wizard like David X. Li might someday earn a Nobel Prize. After all, financial economists—even Wall Street quants—have received the Nobel in economics before, and Li’s work on measuring risk has had more impact, more quickly, than previous Nobel Prize-winning contributions to the field. Today, though, as dazed bankers, politicians, regulators, and investors survey the wreckage of the biggest financial meltdown since the Great Depression, Li is probably thankful he still has a job in finance at all. Not that his achievement should be dismissed. He took a notoriously tough nut—determining correlation, or how seemingly disparate events are related—and cracked it wide open with a simple and elegant mathematical formula, one that would become ubiquitous in finance worldwide.

    For five years, Li’s formula, known as a Gaussian copula function, looked like an unambiguously positive breakthrough, a piece of financial technology that allowed hugely complex risks to be modeled with more ease and accuracy than ever before.

    • ProfElwood

      The math can be given to computers. Now, how do you model the risk takers?

    • merkin

      One of the reasons people are so easily taken in by zero sum gambling like derivatives is due to their weakness in math. Certainly our masters of the universe don’t understand them.

  • Sabinal

    I think Americans are no more smart at math than Europeans. Give a basic algebra question to a Frenchmen and I’ll bet they would not know it any better than someone from Iowa.

    If Americans are “dumb” at math, what kind of math? Who deals with precalculus or trig on a regular basis?

    I think this is another one of those “keeping up with the Europeans” scenario created by latte liberals who see Europe as better than us solely because they are not American. Notice that apart from health care no one compare us to Canada much.

    I teach community college history and once in a while I get people from other countries. They are compatible with American students, but not better. And this is in humanities.

    and I do not trust world rankings in anything. I saw the manipulations charters use when it comes to death rates of infants, when many countries do not count babies that die less than six weeks after birth as existing at all.

  • There are two types of math needed. One is basic math, calculating bills and stuff and maybe inventories and making simple projections if your a manager. Then there is professional level math. If you think calculus is the end of math your are in the first category, if you think it is the start of math you are in the second. Only professionals need to bother with the second kind, its pretty useless unless you use it on a daily basis. Asking what “bad at math” means is pretty valid. I think the point is that general math skills are weak, while our engineers and scientists are as good as those in other nations. The problem is we don’t graduate as high a percentage of these scientists and engineers out of the general population of students as we used to. India and China are making a flood, and our supply is dwindling to a trickle. That’s what we need to change, and for that need to revitalize interest in the fields needed. I went to private school and my friends went to public. My friends all went into post graduate work and graduated college fine, one’s a PHD. If you want an education it still exists in schools, the problem are the students who just don’t care. Neither their parents nor the system is going to drag them kicking and screaming into an education.

  • Zzzzz

    If Americans are “dumb” at math, what kind of math? Who deals with precalculus or trig on a regular basis?

    If you are trying to understand the very basics of whether or not taking a drug or undergoing a medical procedure is a good idea, then you do. You need those things to make head or tails of statistics.

    As a mathematician, I can say that money is definitely a big part of the problem. It isn’t that we need to pay teachers, in general, more. It is that we need to pay MATH teachers a lot more at the junior high and high school level. That will make the other teachers mad, but if it is common knowlege that math equals money, student are more motivated to learn it.

    People do get education degrees, in part, because they are scared of math. People are often scared of math because they were taught by some coach who didn’t know what he was doing. People are taught by some coach, because they hired the teacher for his coaching abilities. After all, there is a shortage of actual math teachers, because someone with a basic background in applied mathematics can make a whole lot more money outside of education, so why not pick up someone who is at least good at coaching? People who are educated, but bad at math, have much more limited opportunities. Education isn’t a bad gig for them.

  • Almoderate

    I bought a new car a few weeks ago, and I got to see up close just how comfortable some of these dealers are with twisting numbers and showing them to customers to convince them that they’ve been given the best deal. I also can see with things like bank/mortgage loans and Wall Street deals how often numbers are thrown around, and when I do the math myself, the numbers don’t add up.Case in point, when we were buying a house, one mortgage lender calculated numbers in such a way as to make it look like they were in fact giving us a great deal– only that would have meant that we were buying an ARM. I’d never heard of an adjustable rate mortgage before, but even I knew that the word “adjustable” meant that it would change. And after doing the numbers myself with the lowest possible rates, the deal was horrible for someone with a credit score well into the high 700s. But I wonder how many more were bamboozled by such a “deal.”When buying a car, a similar situation happened. The Ford dealer came out (after an hour and a half of me explaining exactly what my terms were) and tried to convince me that he’d beaten the Nissan dealer’s offer by $2000. I sat there, multiplied the payments for each by 60 months and added the down payments. And I showed him that he was a liar. He’d beaten the deal– by $150 and $2/month, but with less features and a higher APR. And in fact, he hadn’t come down on the price of the car at all. We purchased the Nissan, and I’ll never forget the stunned look on the Ford dealer’s face that I could even do simple multiplication and division. (Of course, even if I couldn’t, most cell phones come with a calculator tool.)I know for a fact that I’m unusual in that I actually go back and check these things. Your average person won’t. Heck, the average person won’t compare the prices between Wal-Mart and Publix when grocery shopping. I’m not sure if it’s laziness or lack of ability or both, but you’ll also notice if you do a lot of traveling that in most other countries there is a LOT more haggling over the price of goods. The days of negotiating price over just about anything in America are slowly passing us by as a new generation just refuses to do it.It’s used in politics, too. One of the reasons the GOP rants about raising taxes to pay for health care was so successful to the point it was is because so many people can’t or won’t do math and figure out that $100 in taxes is less than $300 in health insurance premiums. In the same way, folks can’t understand how more government spending on college education (and eliminating banks as the middle man) would actually bring in more money for the treasury.Of course, blaming laziness can only go so far when you consider that some simply just don’t have the ability. That leads to the standards we have in our public education system and the curriculum required by governments. Who is setting the curriculum, and who is paying for the lobbyists that influence them? And for that matter, would there be a reason why such people would WANT our middle and lower classes to be less educated? Is there a historical reference to this happening before to keep the lower classes in line? (Yep! Crazy conspiracy time!)

    • ProfElwood

      One of the reasons the GOP rants about raising taxes to pay for health care was so successful to the point it was is because so many people can’t or won’t do math and figure out that $100 in taxes is less than $300 in health insurance premiums.

      You me up until then. Believe it or not, there are some legitimate concerns that throwing money at health insurance will pay off just as well as throwing money at education has. Americans aren’t real good at history, either.

      • Almoderate

        “Believe it or not, there are some legitimate concerns that throwing money at health insurance will pay off just as well as throwing money at education has. Americans aren’t real good at history, either.”Actually, throwing money at education actually HAS paid off. It’s estimated that for every dollar spent on the GI Bill, $7 has been returned to the U.S. Treasury. Of course, this is in regard to higher education, but also consider that we haven’t really been throwing money at K-12. I don’t know if other states might be different, but it’s fairly obvious which school districts in Alabama have the money. Their students have better programs, better facilities, better teachers and, quite frankly, better prepared students. But these are the schools which have broken off of the state and county school system and are funded (and well) through local taxes. The state and county systems tend to use the education fund as their personal petty cash fund for everything else. In that respect, we HAVEN’T been throwing money at education.And looking at other countries provides the evidence that you can in fact receive better health care and lower cost. We do in fact spend more money on health care per person than any other industrialized country, and we’re not getting our money’s worth.

        History is nice to look at, but all you need to do is look at the present to see this much.

        • Dr J

          The state and county systems tend to use the education fund as their personal petty cash fund for everything else.

          You mean the public schools are badly managed? I think you and the Professor are saying the same thing.

          Laments that we don’t fund public education adequately miss the basic reason: schools have not convinced taxpayers that if they paid more, they’d get their money’s worth.

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