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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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