America Needs to Improve Math, Science Education

Ann All

As a writer, you might think I'd be pleased my 8-year-old is turning out assignments that show a predilection toward writing. And sure, it's nice to see paperwork coming home with enthusiastic remarks from his teacher about his "creativity." But I wish he'd show more interest in math. A strong grasp of math, not writing ability, is what I think will put him on the path to success. (If the motherhood gods really want to smile on me, he'll have both.)


I'm concerned about this not just as a mom but as a business journalist covering the tech industry, who sees worrying signs that America's competitiveness could be eroding. And I'm not alone.


Social Innovation Perspectives blogger Monica Harrington, who has worked for startups Valve and Picnick, writes in a guest post on TechFlash.about the need for K-12 educational curricula in the United States to pick up the pace on math and science. In the fifth of her nine hurdles facing America as a center of tech, she calls K-12 education in math and science "a miserable failure," noting that American students' math and science scores lag behind those of other countries.


That's why I'd like to see more new approaches to learning like an online math tool created by California's nonprofit MIND Research Institute and used in Silicon Valley and an individualized learning program for middle-school math students called School of One that is being tested in New York, both of which I mentioned in a post a few weeks ago. A Forbes article highlights several other seemingly successful approaches to learning, shared during a recent day-and-half conference called ''Breakthrough Learning in a Digital Age,'' hosted at Google's headquarters and sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation, Joan Gantz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and the San Francisco-based Common Sense Media organization.


A New York City middle school increased the number of students able to perform math at grade level from just 9 percent to 62 percent in four years, after changing more than half of its teaching staff, giving laptops to every student and training teachers to use Google Docs to share lesson plans with each other, put out assignments and stay in touch with their students. Making the Internet a more integral part of the curriculum is a consistent theme among the programs mentioned in the Forbes article, but it's not something being done yet at many schools. (My son takes weekly classes in a computer lab at his public school, but that's the only time he uses the Internet during the school day.)


The article quotes James H. Shelton III, an assistant deputy secretary in the U.S. Department of Education:

In every other sector, technology has been an essential part of how to do more with less. Pressure, relentlessly applied, causes change.

A need for improved education is implied in several of Harrington's other eight hurdles. In No. 8, for instance, she notes a Gallup poll taken earlier this year shows fewer than 40 percent of Americans believe in the theory of evolution. In a related survey of people from 34 countries, only Turkey scored lower. She writes:

Evolution is not just the central organizing principle of modern biology, it's become a critical foundation for advancements in agriculture, food safety, medicine, conservation, and many new computer technologies. It becomes much harder to foster technical innovation in new areas when so few of us-including key policy makers - are able to grasp a core scientific theory that has proven over time to be so predictive and powerful.

In No. 6, she writes that math and science students from Mexico, which is America's largest source of immigrants both legal and non-legal, fare far worse than their American peers in tests. She mentions on her own Social Perspectives blog that she hopes she isn't called a racist for pointing it out, but:

When Mexico is the largest source of US immigration, how Mexican students do in school and -- because of the importance of tech to the economy -- especially in math and science -- matters to us all.

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