I keep hearing that the United States ranks low in student performance in math and science. This can be interpreted at least two ways.

Interpretations 1: The United States is doing a poor job educating students in two subjects that are vital to the future of the world.

Interpretation 2: Students in the United States realize they will never need to know that mylonite is a breccieated metamorphic rock frequently found in a fault zone.

If you have kids, you know that most of what they learn in math and science is completely useless. I'm going to go out on a limb and say that kids have figured it out too.

I grant you that it is important for the future of the economy that we produce plenty of scientists and inventors and researchers. But how does it help anyone that a future chef can tell you which critters evolved in which epoch? He just needs to know which ones are good eatin'.

I'm all in favor of benchmarking against other countries for education. But isn't the average grade for math and science the most obviously useless and misleading statistic one could follow?
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Oct 21, 2008
If there is some doubt over how skewed our educational priorities are in the system here, check out this sad graph:


Put together from salary survey data by Jorge Cham of PhDComics.com.
Oct 21, 2008
To reader Tutu: I fear they have some difficulties in making the difference between Austria and Australia, not to mention all these other remote countries with funny names and people out there ;-) Actually surprising that so many do not seem interested in knowing where apart from the red indians all the other Americans came from.
Sorry folks, sometimes I can't resist... no offense intended!
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Oct 21, 2008
On topic:

Of course not everything that you learn is useful in your life later on. That's because your education is general and not specialized. Jeez. This attitude [I don't have to learn this, I won't need it anyway] is spreading and I find it absolutely lethal. Last week I had to convince my own son why he needs grammar. I can understand that kids don't grab the concept, but adults...
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Oct 21, 2008
On yesterday's topic:

And the voting fraud has begun (voting machine switches votes from Democratic to Republican candidate):


Oct 20, 2008
Scott, you are not taking one thing into consideration: Learning maths is learning abstraction (at least if it's taught the right way). It doesn't matter if you need every single skill you've learned, but you have (hopefully) improved your thinking.

I had the pleasure to study computer science at the Illinois State University for two semesters (I'm from Germany). I was amazed by the friendliness of the American people (well, at least by almost all of them: At that time, our chancellor Schröder had just denied to go to Iraq, which pissed some people off apparently - hopefully they've learned their lesson), by their interest in my country and so on.

On the other hand, I was surprised about two things: First, the quality of the average student I was studying with. Classes I was warned to take because they were supposed to be difficult were literally a piece of cake for me, but most of the students were having big trouble - I finally ended up giving a tutorial for them, which helped to improve my English, so it was a win-win.

The other thing was the separation between black and white people. I didn't notice racism at all, but still - I was invited to a lot of parties, ad there were no black people at all. I visited a baseball game in Peoria, and from the thousands of people, maybe a dozen were black. I also noticed that I could tell if somebody was white or black just by listening to the accent... That kind of scared me.

Anyways, I had a great time :-)
Oct 20, 2008
I would have to strongly agree with many of the people making the point about critical thinking. As a Ph.D. candidate in engineering, just because my math and science skills have been more "important" to the coursework does not mean that the time I spent studying literature, history, political science, etc. were completely pointless. Rather, this entire process was meant to generate an individual who was more capable of critically evaluating concepts and new ideas, hopefully becoming a more productive member of society. I would argue that the level of science and mathematics expected from a High School student, or even most general university-level degrees will not make rocket scientists out of our students (pardon the pun). Instead, when applied correctly, these courses will contribute as much as literature, rhetoric, history, etc to generating a cogent, balanced, useful citizen. What we have today is a sad dearth of thinking citizenry, most so lazy they'd rather let a talking head on the television or favorite blog make the decisions for them.

I answered a similar question on LinkedIn about the Texas SAT scores, regarding why the scores continued to slip even though spending had dramatically increased (~40%). I believe the answer also applies well to the post you made here:


Several great points have been made here already by the other posters.

First on my list has got to be the level of teaching that goes on at home, and how involved parents are in the educational process. We cannot expect to simply drop off our children and have them come back to us well educated. Education is an ongoing, immersive, total experience that continues throughout a person's life - and to a much larger degree during the formative years. If there is a lack of interest in learning, education, or advancement in the home, we can hardly expect our students to develop these interests on their own. The value that parents place on a good education is often reflected in the attitudes of the students themselves. Obviously there can be extremes that are counter-productive, but those are difficult to be rid of in any case. We need to bring the average parental involvement and interest UP.

Second, we have developed a culture that relies too much on "feeling good about ourselves", while completely ignoring the fact that EARNING the accomplishment is a huge reward in and of itself. We have way too many parents howling that their little special one didn't score top marks, when those marks were simply not earned. Teachers get put under tremendous pressure to make everyone appear to be the same honor-roll success story, or pass a certain exam (the "teaching the test" argument), and are left powerless to truly educate our children in a broader "critical thinker" sense.

Third, we have become a culture that has an attention span of about 12 second (hyperbole, but close enough). If we don't present something with immersive and constant pizazz, it must not be worth the attention. Unfortunately, many of the accomplishments in education require HARD WORK. Now, teachers may find creative ways to make the hard work seem more interesting, but we can never make it easy. It is the process of working for it and achieving that is a huge part of generating a successful student.

We culturally find it very difficult these days to make people work hard, and then face the cold reality that they may not have been as successful as another. I don't believe in "bell curves", but without the accomplishment of a superior grade and achievement meaning something, we sap the incentive for students to pursue these achievements with all the hard work and determination that they actually take. The emerging movement to change the color of a teacher's pen so that the students are less "emotionally affected" when they get corrected is still a bizarre concept to me. What the students should be working towards is reducing the number of these marks by improving their work, not worrying about whether they feel depressed about the color on the page.

If we do not wake up to the fact that we need to generate adults who can think critically rather than simply regurgitate prepackaged answers on a multiple choice exam, we will find ourselves in an intellectual recession that may be difficult or impossible to reverse. This is only anecdotal to me when I have taught courses, but the classical "word problem" lack of capacity in our students seems to come across loud and clear. If I present a question that simply requires multiple choice, fill in the blank, or a purely mathematical solution, many of my students do well. But if I present the problem as a real-world example from which they need to extract relevant information, discard the irrelevant, make assumptions, and explain their reasoning, I am almost always sorely disappointed. This kind of thinking and reasoning ability is absolutely essential in all walks of life, and yet we are producing answer machines rather than thinkers.
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Oct 20, 2008
The lack of math rating is due to a relative disability in concentration, in visualization, and mental laziness.

Most of the disability results from continuous exposure to electronic dissonance. Ads on TV, special effect in computer and console games, text messaging, using cell phones for casual calls.

Part of the disability stems from distracting our students with fashion and dating - studies show grades go up with school uniforms.

The problem isn't low math scores - our problem is that we handicap the ability of the best students by focusing public education on 'no child left behind'. We disable the distinction between those engaged in learning, and those incapable or uninterested in learning.

We really should return to the original intent of compulsory education - through grade 8 or age 16. Anyone wanting to progress to high school had better want to stay in school, and complete the expected work.
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Oct 20, 2008
Math is very useful in life.
Certain aspects of science are useful in everyday life even if you don't become a scientist.
But really people, when in life will it ever help you to know who invented microscopes or who invented penicillin?
It might be useful to know how these things work but no they never seem to test us on these things.
What really bothers me are history and literature classes.
Never in life will it ever help me, even under the most bizarre and obscure !$%*!$%*!$%*!$ will it ever help me to know why juliet killed herself, or when Shakespeare was born .
And really when would it ever help to know when the constitution was signed?
It would certainly be helpful to know what's written IN the constituion, but about 90% of the testing questions are regarding the more useless aspects of history.
Oct 20, 2008
We are probably going about math and science wrongly.

You've heard of illiterate of course. One of my favorite words is innumerate. And I think it is as big a problem.
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Oct 20, 2008
Let me tell you as an inside source that kids are not doing poorly in school on purpose.
Oct 20, 2008
Whoops. Didn't realize I couldn't use html!
Oct 20, 2008
I feel what it comes down to is critical thinking skills. I agree wholeheartedly that the vast majority of us really don't need to know even fairly basic geological structures, but education needs to be about more than simply teaching random facts - it needs to be about teaching us <i>how to learn</i>.

I remember precious little from the science classes I took from 1st-12th grades, but despite not being anywhere near qualified to be a scientist (in ANY field), I feel I developed an understanding of critical thinking and the capacity to look at questions and issues in my life in an objective manner. Simply learning to spout facts doesn't encourage that.

That's why using standardized tests as a sole benchmark is dragging us down: we're teaching our kids to regurgitate facts that they inevitably will forget (and in most cases understandably), when we really need to be focusing on teaching them how to learn for themselves in the best possible manner.
+3 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 20, 2008
I travel in Asia Pacific region a lot and have met some really nice Americans, and some butt heads of course. Many of these are well educated people and same goes for their kids. However I am often disappointed at the lack of general knowledge of things beyond the good ol' USA.

In a global existence such as we have today, you need to know a little about the rest of the world.

Americans still ask me if Australia is near Germany!
Oct 20, 2008
Or you can think that before we decide what will we be (scientist, chef), we want to be taught to study properly, to get better knowledge, then use that knowledge in creative ways. Then, after that, kids will decide what they want, but I'm all against teaching people only the little part of the world that they will need, and no more. Teach people to think more, not less.
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Oct 20, 2008
The testing data is a bit skewed, you should know. The U.S. insists on testing even those in special education classes - these students are often not tested in other countries. In some countries, these students aren't even in schools.

Also, in some cases, students can specialize earlier than they can in U.S. schools. So students can choose a "math" track and not be required to take, say, language courses.

That's not to say that there's no difference at all, but that there is no international standard for testing, so making comparisons based on each countries' results is misleading.
+2 Rank Up Rank Down
Oct 20, 2008
To reiterate what so manyu others have said:

As an engineer, I am also disturbed by the lack of math and science education in our public schools. Even worse, is the approach to math that is called "IInvestigations". In this approach, the kids are taught every conceivable way of arriving at the answer, without ever actually reinforcing the mathematical rule that really governs the operation. So, it takes them 6 weks to cover 3x4=12, but none of them has any idea why 3x4=12, but they have 16 different methods for getting the answer. Rather than teaching them the rule, then offering alternatives if they aren't getting it, they teach all the alternatives without the rule. All part of the "don't let a kid feel bad about themselves by teaching them hard things" approach. A horrible example is the fact that most of the kids in my son's 5th grade class can't do the multiplication table to 15 that we learned in the third grade.

And as other posters have pointed out, the education in math and science, as well as in english, literature, social studies and the like, is important for everyone so that they have critical thinking skills as well as enough of a background in things to be able to make important decisions. In this day and age when pundits and bloggers have such a loud voice in the media, there are far too many people who will believe whatever some people have to say. They use to call them "snake-oil salesmen" - hucksters who, with the right charisma and pitch, could get the suckers to buy just about anything. Nowadays, those same personalities are the people on the radio, TV, or Internet who can get you to believe the absurd, like that the oil in ANWR will make the US independent of mid-east oil (it won't). A decent education and critical thinking skills are more important now than ever in order to wade through the ever increasing piles of BS around us.

So, while I don't necessarily remember what I was taugh in 6th grade social studies about the culture of the native peoples of Costa Rica, it does still help me today to in the ability to understand the world and form my own opinions based on the facts, rather than blindly following someone else's. We might agree, but I prefer to get their on my own.

Oh, and BTW, as Dilbert has noted before, "benchmark" is not a verb, so "benchmarking" is not a word.
Oct 20, 2008
The bigger problem is the rank is meaningless. Many of the countries that shock us with their rank don't educate all the children like our nation does. We are never going to have 100% of America's kids test high in any subject.

I'd love to see a culture where learning is prized for it's own sake, but I'll settle for a school system that prepares kids for life in such a way that they don't simply drop out.
Oct 20, 2008
Yes, we all know that most of math and science is useless. But what else would we learn? Are you saying English (meaning the study of stories, not learning the language) and Social Studies are more useful? A lot of it is useless, but you need a grounding in the basics, or else you end up like crazy rainbow lady: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HV9gRFv5Kgc
Oct 20, 2008
Well, a useless indicator, but why are what seems to be fewer kids interested in math and science? I think those areas would have taken off, since bullying is not an acceptable form of behavior. I bet math and science club membership would have doubled at least. Publishing a notice for a Science Club meeting was like an invitation for a beating.

When I talk to kids, few are interested in science and math, most seem more into being an athlete, or a musician or a lawyer. Based on how much science and math I could take in school as a kid, I don't feel the kids now get as much exposure to science and math.

I said in a previous days post that I believe public schools are managing kids so they all have similar skills, not pushing skills for excellence especially in science and math.

Funny story, I did a presentation explaining since I had only an 8 item result to compare to a over 100,000 item result, there was very little certainity in the comparison. I brought up standard deviation and how the more samples I have the better I feel about the exactness of comparing two samples. It was unpleasant after that, some days I feel like few people have any clue about how things fit together and work.

"if you use a random number generator and 3600 times each hour you a repeat the seed and you do 100,000 generations in an hour, it's not going to be very random." "Well of course it's random, it's a random number generator." *Sigh* excuse me, I have to go stockpile supplies.
Oct 20, 2008
As a scientist I am truly disturbed by the number of people who cannot understand the basics of how their world works. Not understanding basic concepts leads people to believe evolution is an affront to God or “Carbon Credits” actually save the planet. Too many people cannot read a chart or understand “Margin of Error” in a political pole. We have politicians and reporters who try to explain the affect of CO2 to the world and change our lives, but cannot understand the journal articles that published these concepts. A rudimentary understanding of science would at least help people to know when to listen to a reporter or look up info for them selves.

Arbyisme mentioned “ a fair selection process to direct students to vocational training.” This may hinder so many kids that are more capable than they realize. I started high school with mediocre math skills. That may have placed me into a vocational path. With help from my parents and a tutor, I graduated high school having already completed college level calculus. The average person could understand a lot more if they tried, they don’t give themselves enough credit. If kids work hard starting early and get lots of help from their parents, they could do much better and understand much more about the world. Even if the parents don’t understand, they could relearn it with their kids.
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