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One Reason US Students Are Falling Behind in Math

We’ve had a lively discussion in our office this week about the recent New York Times article on issues in US math education in general, and in encouraging girls to be successful in math in particular (“Math Skills Suffer in U.S., Study Finds”). What’s one of the reasons US students are falling behind in math? As the article says, “American culture does not highly value talent in math, and so discourages girls – and boys, for that matter – from excelling in the field.”

As early as late elementary school or middle school, kids who used to love math all of a sudden realize that it’s not “cool”, and/or that “math is really hard and I’m not good at it so I won’t try very hard”. Talk about pre-ordaining failure!

The article reports on a new study published in an academic journal last week that took a new approach to the question of whether boys are genetically more likely to be gifted in math than girls. Are genetics the reason that there are so few women mathematicians among university faculty or the top researchers? This study suggests not, but rather it is our education system and culture. There are many more kids with the POTENTIAL to be ‘gifted’ in math than kids who are actually being found, nurtured, and coached as very gifted in math, and this is a societal problem.

The Culture of Fostering Math Learning Skills

The US has a culture that tends to be anti-math, and in particular, associates being good at math with being nerdy. So in the US we’ve identified very few girls who we deem ‘talented in math’, even though many girls have the potential. And a disproportionate number of the identified highly gifted math students in the US are Asians or immigrants from a country that values math. Since some other countries – such as Bulgaria and Romania – have many more women who are very gifted in math (even though these countries are so much smaller than the US) , it is clearly a result of better math education plus a culture that expects and values it.

So, as parents and educators, let’s all do our part to change this. Our kids are picking up our societal bias against math. When an adult says “Can someone else please figure out the tip for this restaurant bill? I’m not good at math!” or “I always struggled at math, so I’m not surprised my child isn’t doing well”, you can be sure that some little ears are listening!

Math Skills Restaurant Bill
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