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American Math Education: Worse Than We Think?

November 15, 2012

 As a recruiter of quantitative talent I’m always interested to hear how math education in the United States compares to other countries. As a mother of three high school kids, I’m personally invested in the state of public school education and how our children can compete internationally. This is why I found Arthur Levine’s recent article in the Wall Street Journal particularly troubling.

Mr. Levine points out the obvious truth that most Americans are aware of: the United States is mediocre at best in math education. Every year recent grads are competing with the best in the world and they are unfortunately ill-prepared. If we don’t focus on fixing this problem now, it will only get worse. Math education has fallen by the wayside and apart from a new statistic coming out every few months to support what we already know, it doesn't look like the government is making any effort to make a substantial change.

What Mr. Levine points out though, is that there’s another form of competition within the US as students in urban and inner city schools compete with their counterparts in the suburbs. Shockingly, he specifically points to Evanston, IL and Scarsdale, NY as exceptions to general low performance in American schools. Mr. Levine writes that students in Evanston outperform students in Finland and Singapore, the top school systems in the world.

My children are currently enrolled in Evanston Township High School, and while I’d love to believe they are part of a competitive, high performing system, I was skeptical. Based on experience this did not ring true, and sure enough the facts prove otherwise. According to the Prairie State Achievement Exam, only 42% of student at ETHS met federal education standards in math. This is clearly substantially lower than the 75% proficiency rate in Shanghai and even 50% in Canada.

My children are fortunately able to partake in ETHS’s high level math program. As frustrating as the national statistics are, the students in this program are outstanding, motivated, and sure to succeed. I can’t speak highly enough of the fantastic teachers who devote so much to math education and inspire their students.

I wish there were more programs like this available to more students nationwide. I’m sorry to say though, that the overall picture is bleaker than Mr. Levine paints it. If even these so-called “affluent suburbs” are not up to par with the international community, something has to change.

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