Mediocre at Math

Behind the curve American high school students don't understand math concepts as well as students in most other developed countries, according to Program for International Student Assessment, an international survey.

The U.S. ranks 24th out of 29 countries, reports the Washington Post.

Students from Finland and South Korea scored best in the survey, which measured the ability of 15-year-olds to solve real-life math problems.

...A previous study, released three years ago, showed that U.S. students were in the middle of the pack when it came to reading but lagged in math. Since then, the United States has fallen behind countries such as Poland, Hungary and Spain by some measures of math proficiency.

U.S. students are scoring better on the math section of the National Assessment of Education Progress, a federal survey. But the test is "far too easy," says Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution.

"We have downplayed arithmetic," Loveless said. "By and large, American students don't know how to work with fractions very well and don't know how to work with decimals. This handicaps their performance internationally."

PISA measures students' ability to apply math skills to practical problems, the Christian Science Monitor points out. While whites and Asian-Americans score much better than black and Hispanics, "even the highest US achievers in mathematics literacy and problem solving were outperformed by their peers in industrialized nations."

Japan's scores declined, reports blogger White Peril. Japanese students trust their teachers less than students elsewhere; they're also less likely to believe schools are teaching useful knowledge or giving them the confidence to make their own decisions.

Simon's World finds dissatisfaction in high-scoring Hong Kong. Hong Kong students "ranked HK students as top in maths, second in problem solving, third in science and seventh in reading for an overall top ranking of all countries surveyed.”

A victory for HK's education system? Not necessarily.

The same survey also found HK students had the worst perception of their schooling. More than half said school had done little to prepare them for adult life, 13 percent said school was a waste of time and they had the lowest sense of "belonging" out of all students surveyed. Despite the Government's efforts, schooling in HK remains about only one thing: getting good marks. This sausage factory approach means schools teach but they don't educate. It is made worse by the huge pressure parents put their children under to perform to the exclusion of all else.

The U.S. would love to have these problems.

Everyone's Incredible

"The Incredibles" can be seen as a dramatization of a great debate in education, writes John Tierney in the New York Times. Is it OK for some kids to be super?

The movie has reignited one of the oldest debates about child-rearing and society: competition versus coddling, excellence versus egalitarianism.

Is Dash, the supersonic third-grader forbidden from racing on the track team, a gifted child held back by the educational philosophy that "everybody is special"? Or is he an overprivileged elitist being forced to take into account the feelings of others?

Is his father, Mr. Incredible, who complains that the schools "keep inventing new ways to celebrate mediocrity," a visionary reformer committed to pushing children to excel? Or is he a reactionary in red tights who's been reading too much Nietzsche and Ayn Rand?

Is Syndrome, the geek villain trying to kill the superheroes, an angry Marxist determined to quash individuality? Or is his plan to give everyone artificial superpowers an uplifting version of "cooperative learning" in an "inclusion classroom"?

...Children are constantly feted for accomplishments that used to be routine. They may not all be honored at a fourth-grade graduation ceremony - the event in the movie that inspires Mr. Incredible's complaint about mediocrity -- but they all hear the mantra recited by Dash's sister in response to his ambitions.

"Everyone's special, Dash," she says.

"Which is another way of saying no one is," he replies.

Blogger Virginia Postrel writes that the movie is "absolutely delightful" for persons of all political hues. The villain, not Mr. Incredible, is the Randian, she writes.


Ricky Stevens of Arkabutla, Miss., writes:

A good friend of mine retired after 20 years as a field agent with an agricultural chemical company. He had bachelor's degrees in chemistry and biology and a master's in entomology. He was not allowed to teach in the public high schools because he did not have any education courses. My MBA wife has 20 years of business experience, including her own successful tax service. She also inquired about teaching at the high school level. Same answer: No education hours, no public school job. Since then she has won several teaching awards at the local community college, where she was hired without any education courses.

Ralph Givens of Cedaredge, Colo., writes:

In response to G. McDowell's letter on teacher certification, I attended a small high school in New Jersey in 1939-1943 where the school board flatly refused to allow a teachers' college graduate to teach the "academic" students, i.e., those who were considered to be good college prospects.

I checked my yearbook. All 19 of my teachers there were liberal arts graduates from schools such as Penn, Columbia, Tulane, Temple, and Dickinson. Over half had an MA or MS in the subject that they taught. Those teachers had had a three-month summer course in pedagogy before beginning their careers. I think that I received an excellent education that prepared me well for my college years, which resulted in three degrees.

Frank Corbin of Henderson, Nev., writes:

I just love it when functionaries of the public education system advocate parental involvement and bemoan the failures of today's parents. Are we to believe that those teachers are not responsible for including work ethic, responsibility and critical thinking skills as part of their requirements? Oh wait, those teachers are for the most part a product of the same public education system that doesn't teach those things. Nothing like a few chickens coming home to roost.

How convenient for them that parents are now expected to deliver those things at home for which they have built tax-subsidized institutions and hired "public servants" to provide. Every teacher I have ever talked to in private has blamed the previous grade teachers for the low quality of students and their substandard level of education. Not a one is willing to criticize the system itself out loud. But, they have no compunctions about banding together and condemning parents.

Where is the proof that shows today's parents help measurably less with a child's education? Is there a study proving that children parented by public educators are superior students because of that parentage?

Just for fun, compare some anecdotes about immigrant children's study habits whose parents were NOT indoctrinated by America's public re-education system or the welfare state versus the study habits of children whose parents are a product of the American public education system. I am willing to bet we could find some proof in that area regarding just who really is to blame for shortcomings in public education.

Joanne Jacobs writes about education and other issues at She's writing a book, Ride the Carrot Salad, about a start-up charter high school in San Jose.

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