How Can We Improve Our Math Scores?

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This week's horrible math scores among 4th and 8th graders highlights America's ongoing struggle to score competitively in international standardized tests in math and science. So the New York Times Room for Debate blog brought together five education experts to offer solutions. Are they any good?


Let's review their arguments:

1) Blame the Tests "The only good news is that students attending Catholic schools -- ironically the institutions sheltered from Washington's accountability regime -- displayed a robust jump in achievement...The culture of standardized testing -- legitimated by Washington policies -- has served to de-skill and demoralize our best teachers."

2) Blame the Teachers "There are certainly problems with No Child Left Behind, but the law's encouragement of testing is not one of them...Teaching methods, curriculum, lack of adequate subject matter knowledge among math teachers and lack of real consequences in school accountability systems, rather than tests and standards, could be the real culprits for low scores."

3) Blame the Curriculum "If we want to improve mathematics education, we should banish nonsensical curricula like Trail Blazers, Everyday Math and Investigations and make sure that our teachers are properly educated and proficient in math content."

4) Blame the Textbooks "In elementary school textbooks in the United States, easier arithmetic problems are presented far more frequently than harder problems. The opposite is the case in countries with higher mathematics achievement, such as Singapore."

5) Blame the Pedagogy "What is needed is not another test, but sound mathematics instruction that stresses content over process. The education establishment needs to understand that even process is based on skills and exercises, and a logical sequence of topics whose mastery builds upon itself."

So you see, education policy reform is very simple. All we have to do is revamp the pedagogy, throw out the textbooks, re-write the tests, fire all the teachers, and draw up a new curriculum.

This article is a microcosm of what frustrates me about education policy. Every college grad considers him or herself an education expert because they've spent at least 16 years in school, and our education system is a bottomless PEZ dispenser of issues. The result is something quite cacophonous.

To me, some things are clear. Countries that outperform the United States in math and science almost universally have longer school days. In fact the length of the school day is one of only a handful of dependable indicators of achievement. So let's extend the school day. Beyond that the issue of math achievement stumps me a bit. I'm sure the best answer out there probably involves incentives -- whether they're financial for the teachers or pedagogical for the students -- but it's deceptively easy to blame the whole system.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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