Is the US math education system really broken?

From Does the U.S. Produce Too Many Scientists?:

Arguments for the shortage based on the inadequacy of American education generally begin with the results of standardized tests used in international comparisons . . . But a detailed study of students’ performance on TIMSS as well as on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), another widely reported international comparison test, by B. Lindsay Lowell of Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of International Migration and Hal Salzman of the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., suggests otherwise. “Their point is that the average performance of U.S. students on these comparative international tests is not a meaningful number,” Teitelbaum says. Far from trailing the developed world in science education, as some claim, “on PISA, the U.S. has more high-scoring kids in science than any other country” and nearly as many in the top math category as top-scoring Japan and Korea, Salzman says.

Raising America’s average scores on international comparisons is, therefore, not a matter of repairing a broken educational system that performs poorly overall, as many critiques suggest, but rather of improving the performance of the children at the bottom, overwhelmingly from low-income families and racial and ethnic minorities. This discrepancy, of course, is a vital national need and responsibility, but it does not reflect an overall insufficient supply of able science students.

Put more succinctly, by Eric Weinstein:

The problem with US math & science education is that we became dependent after 1970 on a permanent state of lying about just how bad we are.

(ADDED) I like Josh’s addendum:

Seems more like lying about what kind of bad we are, not how bad.

5 Responses

  1. Seems more like lying about what kind of bad we are, not how bad.

    In fact, yikes, the more I look at this the sketchier it gets.

    Far from trailing the developed world in science education, as some claim, “on PISA, the U.S. has more high-scoring kids in science than any other country” and nearly as many in the top math category as top-scoring Japan and Korea…

    I’m looking for “per capita” and not seeing it here. Someone tell me why I should take this seriously?

    I guess some would say that as long as we’re producing enough experts then we’re doing okay. But in my view, this doesn’t show the overall health of the system any more than the Olympic medal count disproves a nation-wide obesity problem.

    • Does it make sense for per capita to be directly proportional to educational performance? It can be used to help make correlations, sure, but if used as a raw multiplier the expectations for US test scores would be ridiculously high.

      However …

      Seems more like lying about what kind of bad we are, not how bad.

      seems to neatly encapsulate the situation. Educational rhetoric often speaks from a “we need to be like country X” standpoint rather than a “we need to do something about our poverty / inequality / etc.” standpoint.

      • Way belated, just spotted your reply as I hunted down something else here.

        The metric specified in the quote is “number of high-scoring kids”. Comparing that metric to much smaller countries is meaningless, or outright lying with statistics. eg. If both countries are doing an equally good job, America should have about 60 times as many “high-scoring kids” as Finland due to having 60 times as many kids to begin with.

      • By raw numbers, China and India would beat all numbers on any metric.

        Let me track down the report and get back, though.

  2. Given the variety of approaches we have, and that that variety seems more dictated by which state a student lives in than by anything else, I’m easily convinced that at least the vast majority of what we have is bad.

    At least. At least two-thirds of Texas/California/New York. And it gets worse.

    Jonathan

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