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Posted at 11:46 AM ET, 12/29/2010

Are math scores lagging because U.S. parents are clueless?

By Jay Mathews

I stumbled across one of those charming surveys with too small a sample to depend on, but a result interesting enough -- and close enough to possible -- to blog on anyway. It suggests that the kids in Singapore are stealing our lunch money in the race for math supremacy because their parents hire tutors far more often than we do, and because their parents have a less inflated sense of their math skills than U.S. parents do.

The survey of 1,114 parents of children ages 10-14 was conducted in 2010 by a team of researchers working for the Raytheon Co. and a Boston firm called Eduventures Inc. There were only 561 parents from the United States, 311 from England and 272 from Singapore participating, but the researchers apparently felt that gave them at least a faint suggestion of what might explain the fact that Singapore students’ average math scores are significantly above those of U.S. students. What do you think?

In Singapore, the researchers said, 42 percent of parents report the use of tutors for math help, compared with 10 percent of parents in the United States.

That doesn't mean those American 10- to 14-year-olds aren't getting extra help with their math homework. Seventy-seven percent of U.S. parents said family members helped the children, usually about one or two hours a week.

Let's give a cheer for involved parents before we review the evidence suggesting that mom and dad may not be the best tutors, or the best judges of the worth of their assistance. More than half said they "believe they have high ability to help their children with fractions, division, and math word problems." Seventy-two percent said they "know the level of math education my child needs to succeed in college."

The researchers, phrasing their conclusions gently, said: "Evidence suggests U.S. parents may be overly confident or lacking in the use of accurate metrics around math performance and college preparedness. For example, 78 percent of U.S. parents report their children's math performances are in the top 20 percent compared to peers in school."

There is more bad news for us otherwise good-hearted American parents, proud of our kids and eager to help. The researchers discovered that 51 percent of Singapore parents had received instruction from educators about how to help their children with math. In the United States and England, only 25 percent of parents reported receiving similar instruction.

About a third of Singapore students had participated in math competitions, the parents reported. Only 20 percent of the English parents and 9 percent of the American parents said the same.

U.S. educators appear to think that our kids need more help in math, as well as other subjects. Parents agree. Now we have to figure out if the help we are giving them is really helping much.

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education Web page.

By Jay Mathews  | December 29, 2010; 11:46 AM ET
Categories:  Trends  | Tags:  Raytheon study, Singapore math scores exceed U.S., Singapore student more likely to have math tutors, U.S. parents have inflated view of their children's math performance  
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If 42 percent of the parents in Singapore report hiring math tutors for their students, then perhaps the schools there aren't all that good after all.

We seem to be headed back to the days when the well-off hired tutors for their children and the other children, if they were lucky, learned to read a bit and write their names.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | December 29, 2010 11:59 AM | Report abuse

good point, sideswiththekids.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 29, 2010 12:18 PM | Report abuse

Perhaps this might be an indication that we need to evaluate how math is taught in schools.

I think I'm pretty good with math when it comes to solving "real life" concrete problems. However, many of the math worksheets my kids have brought home seem very abstract and that just doesn't seem like the best way to teach math.

I have a deep respect for math teachers, they have a difficult job especially given the demands and circumstances they face. However it just seems there's got to be a better way to deliver math instruction to the masses than the way it's being done in the majority of schools now.

I think Dan Meyer has some ideas worth considering regarding math instruction as seen in this YouTube presentation:

Posted by: MisterRog | December 29, 2010 12:31 PM | Report abuse

When I was a child my parents, who dropped out of school after the eighth grade, had no clue how to help me with math once I got beyond the fifth grade or so. Also, when I got to high school, they could not help me in regard to choosing my classes or even my school. Like many other girls of the time, I gradually developed math phobia, even though I did well in grade school "arithmetic." Not surprisingly my achievement tests in math were less than inspiring. In college I barely made it through the required math classes.

My own sons, on the other hand, had two parents who were college graduates. Because my husband had a Ph.D. in math, he was able to help our boys with math, even at the college level. As a result they both scored extremely high on math achievement tests. One even got a perfect score on the math part of the SAT, while the other went on to get a Ph.D. in engineering from Stanford.

I tell this story because we've known for many years that the most important factor in education is the family. Simply put: students with educated, involved parents usually do well and students with uneducated, uninvolved parents usually do not. This is true all over the world and yet we keep ignoring it. Why?

This does not mean that children from poor homes cannot do just as well as their privileged peers. What it DOES mean is that we must look at the familial factors that most influence the successful students and find ways to make certain all students have many of those supports. For example, in my case, it would have helped a great deal if I had had an academic mentor, or someone who could have guided my school life once I entered junior high school. Yes, something like a guidance counselor, only without the huge load of students most carry. Tutoring and small classes taught by a well-trained math teacher would have helped as well.

The PISA (Program for International Assessment) shows us that countries that successfully educate their least advantaged students offer some of the supports that privileged children get at home. It's time we did this as well.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | December 29, 2010 2:23 PM | Report abuse

When you look at the document on PISA supplied by the Department of Ed,
you see that in reading literacy, Asian-Americans scored best in the world. (541)
White Americans came in 4th (525)
US Overall 500
Hispanic Americans 466
African Americans 441.

It would very interesting to see how the race breakdown is for math literacy and science literacy.

Can you look into it Jay?

Posted by: edlharris | December 29, 2010 3:04 PM | Report abuse

Jay -

This issue is addressed quite spectacularly in The Daily Riff -
"Why Other Countries Do Better in Math".
You, Jay, may not be surprised by our guest's well-founded conclusions. Let me know what you think.

C.J. Westerberg

Posted by: catherinej | December 29, 2010 3:18 PM | Report abuse

Oh, here's the link to the Dept of Ed report:

Posted by: edlharris | December 29, 2010 4:37 PM | Report abuse

Oh, here's the link to the Dept of Ed report:

Posted by: edlharris | December 29, 2010 4:37 PM | Report abuse

Oh, here's the link to the Dept of Ed report:

Posted by: edlharris | December 29, 2010 4:37 PM | Report abuse

to edlharris and catherinej---excellent suggestions, good links. I will look into them.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 29, 2010 7:26 PM | Report abuse

Here is another way of looking at it:

U.S. schools with a student population consisting of fewer than 10% on free and reduced lunch - average PISA score 551 (would rank 1st)

U.S. schools with between 10 and 25% on free and reduced lunch - ave score 527 (would rank 4th behind only US <10%, Korea and Finland)

U.S. schools with between 25 and 50% on f/r lunch - ave score 502 (rank of 11)

U.S. schools with between 50 and 75% on f/r lunch - ave score 471

U.S. schools with between 75 and 100% on f/r lunch - ave score 445

For comparison, Finland schools averaged 3.4% of students on f/r lunch. Japan averaged 14% of students on f/r lunch. Canada - 14%, Australia 12%, New Zealand 16%. (Korea doesn't report poverty levels.) U.S. schools average almost 22% students on f/r lunch.

Posted by: williamhorkan | December 29, 2010 7:35 PM | Report abuse

To Lindaretiredteacher:
Involved parents? Yes. Educated parents? Not necessarily. One of the most startling stats to come out of the recent PISA report in which students from Shanghai led the world was the fact that students from that city also had the highest percentage of kids defined as "resilient." What resilient means is that 3/4 of the students from the lowest socio-economic quartile in Shanghai nevertheless had scores in the upper 1/4 of students worldwide. Additionally, relatively few of the other students in China have parents or grandparents with college degrees. Basically, the results from Shanghai should cause us to rethink what we believe about the educability of U.S. students.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | December 29, 2010 8:21 PM | Report abuse


What you say is interesting but I was referring to our own country where student achievement correlates highly with socioeconomic levels, especially in regard to the education of the mother. I just read today that students in Scarsdale scored higher in math than the students in Finland.

That said, I still believe that you are right: students in the lowest socioeconomic category CAN and DO achieve at very high levels when the conditions are right. For the most part, though, these students require social supports as well as very well-trained math teachers. That's the point I tried to make by telling my own story. Since my own sons have good math ability, I probably (but not necessarily) do too, but I didn't have the same supports that they did. For the most part, education almost always requires a partnership between home and school; but when that's not possible, the school needs to offer additional supports.

I never want to give the impression that I think poor kids can't achieve.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | December 29, 2010 9:13 PM | Report abuse

I was referring to the part of your post where you write:
"Simply put: students with educated, involved parents usually do well and students with uneducated, uninvolved parents usually do not. This is true all over the world and yet we keep ignoring it. Why?"
We ignore it because it is not true and is essentially a defeatist fatalistic message.
There are many students who do well in school in the most populous nation on earth with parents who are largely uneducated. There is a lesson in China where nearly 10 million kids a year take the college entrance test, which BTW is much tougher than the SAT or ACT. That lesson is that demographics are not destiny. There is an expression in China "Diligence can compensate for stupidity."
There are programs in America which insist that kids can do better if they spend more time in school and work harder (KIPP). We need the will to insist that we follow those programs.

Posted by: patrickmattimore1 | December 29, 2010 10:39 PM | Report abuse

There are many American children who do not have equal access to a good education. Let's give these children whatever they require to get the education to which they are entitled.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | December 29, 2010 11:42 PM | Report abuse

I'll keep repeating this: my grandparents were 8th grade educated, grew up under Jim Crow, yet expected my parents to educate themselves beyond what they achieved. We always draw correlations between poverty and academic performance, yet never delve into the true causality of the discrepancies. Indeed 'poor' students are more expensive to educate, yet we rarely seek to identify what well-off families do to educate their children that poor parents can replicate. It's too simple to say "affluent families hire tutors, etc.," and attribute their success totally to money. My grandparents didn't have money, but they did have each other, their families, their faith, and a swift backhand upside one's head if you failed to learn and behave.
Instead of blaming poverty we must do things to overcome it; teachers and schools can handle the school part, and families/communities must handle the rest.

Posted by: pdexiii | December 30, 2010 2:07 AM | Report abuse

Don't leave out the "curriculum of the moment" when assessing blame for poor math scores. U.S. education tends to experience shifts in philosophy every few years, often at the prodding of the politically connected. This leads to embracing curriculum that may not have the research base but is in sync with the reigning administration.

It also helps if the teachers in the elementary grades actually have a strong understanding themselves of math and are good math teachers.

As a special ed teacher, I am NOT relying on my 5 year old son's school to properly educate him in math. It's Kumon this summer and then we'll see how he fares in the next year or so.

Posted by: Nikki1231 | December 30, 2010 6:46 AM | Report abuse

Math scores may not be the answer to our educational or parenting challenge in the future... or at least I hope not.

Just wanted to correct some facts about Finland and free lunch... Everybody, 100% are entitled to free lunch. It is among the many aspects people miss about the cultural aspects of quality education in general as it is the fact that kids in Finland start formal schooling very late (at the age of 6/7) and stay at school only very few hours: or the cultural context of Asian education which is based on memorization of the behaviour codes, the signs and symbols dominating the communication systems of millions of people.

The point is that we still would like to see our kids as if they were something we can quick-fix, or "sink" into a 24/7 type of treadmill where they will learn all the necessary answers to all possible questions in the future tests - preferably by transplanting a system that works somewhere as far as possible geographically, demographically or culturally.

The idea of spending thousands of dollars and hours on preparing for few tests in calculus and algebra is insane in today's world where even the kids seem to know that it is not the way the world is organized. We need to change the way we see mathematics.

Those isolated math skills will not provide our kids the dream jobs or the tools to survive in the global competition. We parents are lost and true, clueless as we are living in a middle of a total chaos or shift of educational needs for the future. Since the university was the key to some of our success, we want our kids to go to the universities not knowing what majors will be available in 10 years time.

How can we provide a such an educational/political environment that wouldn't jump the gun based on math or reading scores? When are we ready to ensure that the 12+ years our kids spend at schools will make them thinkers and learners for the rest of their lives? Not just average test takers. The list of mathematical successes and failures in the human history is equally long. It is not whether we can get the algorithms correct, but whether we truly understand what what we are calculating.

How can we ensure that the way our kids are educated about mathematics so that our kids will maintain a life-long interest in learning about and through mathematics? Not just asking schools and training the teachers to teach more mathematics in a shorter time... If we believe that mathematics is as important life skill, we all should be treating it accordingly. Currently, it is considered as a weird punishment that is inherent to education - the fallacy of mathematics (aka memorizing irrelevant algorithms) being the secret code for success in life is amazing given that we consider living in the 21st century.

Posted by: edubabble | December 30, 2010 7:32 AM | Report abuse

Many of the posters above have hit upon some valid points as to why US students don't perform as well as many of their international peers, not least of which could include "clueless" parents.

As a retired teacher who loved to teach math, I'd like to see US schools ditch some of the ubiquitous constructivist math programs such as TERC and Everyday Math (that's every minute as those of us in the trenches affectionately referred to it) and replace them with Singapore Math, but only in its original, authentic, unpolluted state.

Singapore Math doesn't teach about feelings, attitudes, and appreciation of arithmetic and mathematics; it teaches arithmetic and mathematics.

This would not solve all our math woes but it could clearly be a step in the right direction.

Posted by: phoss1 | December 30, 2010 8:04 AM | Report abuse

I had the same problem as a few other posters here where my parents never attended high school. It always confused me why they though Algebra and other classes were so important but they never had the course.

Aside from that, I think one of the real problems stems from the expediency we want from children. We are no longer a nation of mastery education as much as a treadmill education system.

When my Granddaughter told me she had Algebra classes in the 4th grade, I nearly lost my eyes from their sockets. What are we trying to accomplish? We are not allowing kids to soak up information but rather perform "drive-by" learning. There are so many fundamental things children need to learn before finding themselves into reasoning theories.

We need to understand the compared nation methods before we jump off the cliff. As an example, Norway only requires 9 year of education. After that 9 years, continuing education is focused on college. Those not choosing college are entered into vocational training. Guess who our children are compared to in testing. It sure isn't the vocational group. But the real hitch comes from comparing ALL the U.S. kids to only part of their kids, and those being the brightest. Who wins when we make those accusations/comparisons? Not our kids.

Posted by: jbeeler | December 30, 2010 8:08 AM | Report abuse

Math more than any other subject relies heavily on rote memorization and time on task for initial success. Both are anathema to our education system. It's exactly why successful studies globally rely on supplemental education.

Posted by: Jkaiyer | December 30, 2010 8:45 AM | Report abuse

Jkaiyer is exactly right. Our system of public education has become a laboratory for every pedagogical fad that comes down the pike. Content is lost, but content is EVERYTHING.

We never got tutoring for our son to prepare for the test-in high schools in NYC, but we did sit down with him a couple of months before the test and work through problems -- the three of us -- together. My husband and I had to reteach ourselves during the process. (We had forgotten a lot since high school;-) It was fun and a learning experience and he got into the top school because and only because he applied himself.

What I saw, though in that period, was just how teachable he was AND how much teaching had not been done in grades 1-8. Tutoring contracted by the city or private instruction is only as good as the instructors -- both their skill level and their attitude toward their young charges. Tutoring is no substitute for actual, consistent classroom instruction. That's what taxpayers want from their public education system. Clear (not fancy) instruction in real subjects that is systematic and easy for students and parents to follow at home. We want there to be reasonable expectations of discipline that are set and enforced throughout each and every school (e.g., no eating outside of the cafeteria, no candy and gum--not even as a "reward," no crude language, no defacement of property and littering, no fighting, etc.). Punishment should not be an arrest, but rather a meaningful corrective for kids -- i.e., isolation from their peers with quiet, solitary work. The system doesn't do that because it (1) lacks the personnel, and (2) lacks administration. For far too long, too many people have entered our public school systems ill-prepared to manage and perform and set standards that are worthy of our nation's students. Teachers' and administrators' colleges, grades, and test scores should be available to the public. Too often the reason Johnny can't read is that the teacher, who came out of No-Name for-profit-pseudo-college-down-the-block can't either.

Posted by: Jennifer88 | December 30, 2010 9:05 AM | Report abuse


Bless you! I didn't want to call out the name of the program we use in Philly but yes, it's EveryDay Math. It is good for *some* students but not an approach I would advocate for the struggling math learner. I don't use this program now that I teach Autistic Support but I remember it well from my reg ed days. My most advanced math students couldn't figure out why they needed 3 different ways to do long division. Why not do *one* method correctly?

I've heard that, with training, EveryDay math can be a good special ed curriculum but I haven't seen that or experienced that myself. Right now, the intervention "curriculum of the month" is Corrective Math and Reading by SRA. I teach Reading Mastery, a lower-level version of CR, and I like it for my population of students. It's successful.

Posted by: Nikki1231 | December 30, 2010 9:13 AM | Report abuse


I agree. Math also requires building skills over time and practice. When students don't develop basic skills, they are truly stuck. We have 4th graders at my school in remedial math because they don't know their basic addition facts. That's criminal.

Posted by: Nikki1231 | December 30, 2010 9:18 AM | Report abuse

Could it be that parents just don't understand Math standards like this one?

"Transform exponential and logarithmic
expressions into equivalent forms using the
properties of exponents and logarithms,
including the inverse relationship between
exponents and logarithms."

Posted by: MisterRog | December 30, 2010 9:23 AM | Report abuse

Thank you for that breakdown.

(Everyone else, sorry about the triple post. Internet browser problem.)

Posted by: edlharris | December 30, 2010 9:41 AM | Report abuse

I can only speak to my experience as a NY parent. I place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the NYS Dept. of Education and its ridiculous, incoherent Math curriculum for HS.

When my son was in HS, it was Sequential I, II & III

When my daughter was in HS, it was Math A and Math B, each year and a half courses.

Now, NYS has finally returned to algebra, geometry and trig.

Not only couldn't the parents keep up with the changes, the teachers couldn't. The #1 tutor hired by parents was for Math and I would guesstimate that at least 30-40% of the parents in my district paid for Math tutors.

Posted by: lisamc31 | December 30, 2010 10:05 AM | Report abuse

Math teachers in Singapore are required to have a fairly significant level of content knowledge, even at the K-6 level. In the US, teachers with elementary certification can fail the entire math section of the state exam and still teach math K-6.

Perhaps parents don't seek the assistance of their children's math teachers in the US because our children's teachers are so very poor at math. I, for one, have gotten a blank stare and confused babble from elementary teachers when I ask them math curriculum questions.

Posted by: EduCrazy | December 30, 2010 10:55 AM | Report abuse

phoss and educrazy,
Good points about Singapore Math - you will find The Daily Riff's four-part series about Singapore Math (written by a Scarsdale Helping Math teacher with 27 years teaching experience and who has traveled to both Singapore and Japan learning from those countries' perspectives) most illuminating and can be found here:
His post recent post is "Why Other Countries do Better in Math" which is an overview of Singapore Math and cultural attitudes including parents.

Posted by: catherinej | December 30, 2010 11:06 AM | Report abuse

"In the US, teachers with elementary certification can fail the entire math section of the state exam and still teach math K-6."

Not in California. They have to pass the Multiple Subjects CSET, and the difficulty of that test has led to a major decline in elementary school teachers.

Two issues: first, the importance of "cram school" can't be underestimated in evaluating the results and yes, that does suggest that the Singapore schools aren't all that.

Second, the US isn't Singapore. Lower ability kids don't have the interest or the pressure to learn higher math. Unless we can force them and make them fear failure, we're not going to have the same results.

Oops, three issues: poverty is overrated as a cause of educational failure. Poor whites do quite well--better than middle class and higher blacks, and about the same as middle class and higher Hispanics.

Singapore, Shanghai, and Finland don't have blacks and Hispanics, so looking to them for answers is moronic. So the obvious thing would be to look to the country that educates blacks and Hispanics better than anyone else.

Oh, wait. That's us.

So enough of this nonsense of aggregating achievement across race, or surveying Singapore parents as some sort of comparison.

We spend a lot of money educating our kids. We don't do all that badly. Doing better would require acknowledging the importance of cognitive ability on academic outcomes (regardless of race). Until we're ready to do that, there's not much else to discuss. But at least we could stop discussing Singapore.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | December 30, 2010 11:49 AM | Report abuse

There are a number of differences and they all contribute. However, as a teacher of over 20 years I am absolutely convinced that culture plays a significantly large role in the academic performance of our youth. I also submit that our public schools reflect our culture, they are "us."

I recently encountered the phrase "Confucian cultural circle" in my reading. Singapore, China, Japan, Korea (all countries with high scores) fall within this "circle." The S.E. Asian countries that do not, Cambodia and Laos, do not demonstrate high achievement.

This cultural norm is almost hardwired into these peoples and it demands family honor, hard work, etc. It is a very different view of life and responsibility than we promote in America.

It is the norm in these nations for parents to send their children to after school tutoring to keep them on top. The family expects their child to be the best and some folks have described the ways in which the extended family pulls together in an effort to realize this.

I have been told, by people who know the culture intimately, that the entire extended family in Japan will contribute $$$ for a child to be educated in a good school. It is not unusual for aunts, uncles, grandparents, everyone to participate in funding the upcoming generation's education.

Singapore, for instance, determined in the 1980s it did not want to remain an economic backwater, so the nation systematically enacted reforms to bring their country into the modern era and into a position of excellence.

Upgrading education was only a part of an overall plan. The plan was implemented, one step at a time, and we have been seeing the payoff of almost 30 years of careful planning and implementation of a total plan. But, Singapore is a tiny nation and it is much easier to control details than in a giant like the U.S.

The U.S. does not share the Confucian cultural circle's views, American parents are as a group unwilling to demand hard work and excellence of their children. Huge numbers of American high school students simply "blow-off" their homework assignments, and you cannot master math if you do not practice daily. Our students as a group are not practicing and our teachers are exhausting themselves trying to get student compliance. I doubt seriously this is the case in Singapore.

Posted by: silverstarent2003 | December 30, 2010 11:59 AM | Report abuse

I work for an education company that provides online tutoring and homework help through public schools, libraries and the U.S. military. We've conducted over 6 million sessions (connecting a student to a tutor online) and well over 60% of those sessions are for math help. With Algebra at the top of the list.

After each session students can complete a survey and leave a comment. We receive tens of thousands of comments that say my parents can no longer help me with my math homework.

Students are coming to us because they want and need additional help to achieve success in both gateway courses such as Algebra and more advanced courses such as Calculus. They often feel embarrased to ask questions in class and if older siblings, friends or parents can not help, then they are out of luck.

Because our service is usually free to students and available the moment they get stuck, they feel it is a lifesaver and many attribute having access to a qualified math tutor as the main reason they are able to improve their grades and stay in challenging courses.

We surveyed over 1,000 students and found that 86% of student respondents said they would be more likely to take an AP Course if they knew that an expert subject tutor was available to help them online, 24/7, one-to-one, and on-demand, any time they get stuck.

So do U.S. students need more help then they are getting in the current system? And possibly more help than mom or dad can provide? Our data says emphatically yes.

And school districts like Broward County (and others) are working with to specifically offer students additional out-of-school support for Algebra. All ninth graders in Broward need to pass a new proficiency exam and we will provide the qualified math tutors to meet that goal.

Posted by: jkohn1 | December 30, 2010 12:11 PM | Report abuse

@cal lanier:

catherinej posted a link to an article about outcomes of the Singapore math program. I read it and so should you.

The math teacher who wrote the article worked in and used the program in a Paterson, NJ school and in a Scarsdale school. Apparently, both improved their math scores despite one being inner city and the other the highest scoring district in the country.

If you do any additional research into Singapore math, you will quickly learn how differently it operates than many popular math programs like EveryDay Math. The emphasis is on mastery of a basic skills and *one* essential problem solving strategy. The broad brush we use to hit all math topics simply doesn't occur until later grades, allowing for a depth that is rarely achieved in U.S. schools.

Singapore math is not a "magic bullet". There are caveats in terms of grade implementation, expenses and teacher training. However, the signs are good. If we are serious about improving education, we need to be using what may work best.

Posted by: Nikki1231 | December 30, 2010 12:13 PM | Report abuse

This is a great discussion.

silverstarent2003 has it right. Confucius lives. Patrickmattimore is also right about the nature of Shanghai families. And Linda/Retiredteachers in right to say that having involved parents (Patrick focused on the educated but not the involved) can make a big difference. I suspect those uneducated Shanghai parents were very involved, and probably knew a lot from self education. Until recently it has been hard for the majority of Chinese to get much of a formal education, but the place is full of skilled techs that read a lot on their own and help their kids. Some of the leaders of the Democracy Movement in the 1970s were electricians who never had a chance to go to college. Their children and grandchildren have many more opportunities now.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 30, 2010 12:42 PM | Report abuse

The role of the parents as teachers is essential, and efforts to raise standards of parental preparedness will pay off handsomely. Let me propose two steps to be taken in this decade: 1) We should begin pre-parenting education for boys and girls around age 8, giving them "lookahead" information about lifepath sequencing, and building a strong factual basis for putting childbearing at the end stage of maturation (education, financial independence, marriage, then kids). See:
2) We need to reform our immigration policy so as to select the most highly educated. Keeping the floodgates open to poor itinerants hands our educational system a "boil the ocean" challenge, and undermines US competitiveness. We have a big enough load of underprivileged kids to develop already (and we will!), but don't confuse this resolve with a naive willingness to import essentially unlimited numbers of such families.

Getting girls (and boys) to put off childbearing until they are well-established as lifelong learners and adequately prepared for the challenges of parenting is the leverage point for "closing the gap".

Posted by: pbinCA | December 30, 2010 1:06 PM | Report abuse

Minnesota has a relatively homogeneous population, predominantly middle-class whites of Scandinavian descent. Yet they had less than half the percent reaching the "advanced" level in math as Finland. Finnish kids don't start school until age 7 and their school day and year are shorter than ours. So it isn't about demographics or time superior curriculum.

I'm using a homeschool math curriculum developed by a Finnish lady called "Math Mammoth" with my kids and it's excellent. Far better than the traditional math I had growing up and the dreadful "Every Day Math" used in the government-run schools in our district.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | December 30, 2010 3:53 PM | Report abuse

The last sentence of my first paragraph should read: "So it isn't about demographics or time spent in school but rather a superior curriculum."

Posted by: CrimsonWife | December 30, 2010 3:55 PM | Report abuse

@ pbinCA- I think you're confusing correlation with causation. Older parents aren't necessarily better parents- it's just that highly educated folks today tend to delay becoming parents until their 30's. I was quite the anomaly in my social circle getting married a month shy of my 22nd birthday and having my first child at 25. Most of my college classmates have toddlers or younger while I have a 3rd grader. But she's doing quite well academically.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | December 30, 2010 4:06 PM | Report abuse

The discussion is intelligent and lively, but what an irony that the first sentence of the provocation contains a mathematical error: There's nothing about the SIZE of the samples, Jay, that constrains "depending on [the samples]" for any of the conclusions or ruminations in your blog entry. Sampling error is a direct function of the square root of n. That's the simple math. Formulae for the confidence that differences in percentages are larger than likely due to sampling are very, very simple, too.

Sample design and execution, though, are rhetorical arts: do and select what you wish to win an argument, bring a survey in under budget--or, as here -- provoke a fine conversation. (That is cynical, to be sure, but I have seen no respect or interest by journalists over forty years for sound, statistically based survey designs and execution.)

As several commenters have shown, findings and results depend on selection, whether of the population sampled and tested, --eg. 16 years olds or 16 year olds still enrolled in school? -- or of the subpopulations reported on.

Posted by: incredulous | December 30, 2010 4:07 PM | Report abuse

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Posted by: tshoes38 | December 30, 2010 8:43 PM | Report abuse

As I have said before, comparing the education achievement is the US vs. other countries is a question of test design and who is being measured. To this I can now add socioeconomic status and additionally received teaching (tutors).
I see the need for a new article that fully examines all these facets when measuring educational success by country.
John Dickert
Mount Vernon Farms

Posted by: 12191946 | December 30, 2010 10:25 PM | Report abuse

Why is it, in articles like this one, one major point is left out? The US tests ALL students because ALL students required by law to attend school. Data was invented to be manipulated. You can bet your bippy that the testing data from the other countries has been manipulated. How many of these top countries have really poor students who don't get the benefit of education? Have female students who routinely drop out to help at home? or work? because education for females is not a high priority? There's a lot going on here that's not reported in the "data."

Posted by: fgabi | December 31, 2010 12:03 AM | Report abuse

So Singapore has a total enrollment of 532,225 students with a budget of S$6.966 billion (USD $5,417,016,993). Please can the US have that kind of cash for such a small number (comparatively) of students?

Posted by: fgabi | December 31, 2010 12:07 AM | Report abuse

By all objective measures, including extensive IQ testing, students in East Asia are simply smarter on average than the current generation of American students. And there is no getting around the fact that being good at math is mostly about brainpower. Tutors can make a marginal difference, but for double digit IQ children math will always be as Barbie described it, "hard."

Posted by: CharlesMcKay1 | December 31, 2010 12:47 AM | Report abuse

According to the Pareto Principle, 80% of production comes from 20% of the inputs. Following Pareto's logic, educational leaders should consider examining the number of standards in the curriculum and take a serious look at which are "the vital few" that generate the results that we are looking for, i.e., being competitive as a nation in Mathematics.

Recently, I read the statement in a brain-based education book that concluded, "too fast doesn't last". In another book called This Is Your Brain On Music, the author noted that it takes a minimum of 10,000 hours to become world class in any discipline. I find it amusing that someone would say that it's criminal that 4th graders don't know addition facts; a substantial number of 7th graders don't know their multiplication facts. Try adding fractions with unlike denominators without automatic recall of multiplication facts! Students who have automatic math fact recall tend to have lots and lots of connections. Students who have lots and lots of connections have a far easier time recalling facts. Students who have lots and lots of connection, as a rule, have had rich and varied experiences with numbers. Sadly, a lot of math students don't get a lot of rich and varied experiences with numbers. Too often, the joy of understanding is beaten out of children by teachers who are forced to stick to mandatory pacing guides. Too often, Math teachers are in too big of a hurry.

Mandatory pacing guides don't take into consideration the developmental stages and base number sense of a highly diverse population, which leads to educational mis-matches, particularly at the bottom and top portions of the bell curve. It's painful as a teacher to have to force children to learn math procedures that they aren't ready to learn. A greater emphasis on differentiated instruction nationally would probably require a greater focus on the "vital few" that generate the greatest results. Eliminating clutter would involve important choices about which are the "vital few".

Posted by: dannykurland1 | December 31, 2010 1:06 AM | Report abuse

The statistic that 78 percent of American parents think their children are in the top 20 percent at school is extremely telling. A chief difference between America and other countries is that parents here really do believe that their children are the best, and they keep telling themselves and their children this even if the children do not perform exceptionally well. We literally do live in Lake Woebegone, where all of the children are above average.

And, of course, because all of these parents think their kids are the best, the bar for improvement is set low. Whereas parents in other countries are willing to criticize their children and push them to do better, whatever kids in America are doing right now is given an "A" and a pat on the head. Why work harder to master the subject if one is already receiving such praise?

Posted by: blert | December 31, 2010 2:04 AM | Report abuse

I'm not an educator, but a pretty good observer. Is it not true that at one point in our not so distant past, we were near the top of the world in student achievement? Currently, all I see in the media are reports on studies such as this, and endless speculation about what we can learn from this city or that country, how we can further change our system, etc.

Does not anyone in the educational "community" approach this problem from the point of view that we should see WHAT WE HAVE DONE TO OURSELVES to cause to drop from the top to 25th? Why was a system, or approach that resulted in a good product so modified as to cause a defective product to be produced?

If I am running an assembly line, and the widgets coming off the end are of good quality and are well received in the market place, I would tend to leave things as they are. If a bunch of guys and gals with laptops come in and tell me that I could improve my product by doing A, B, and C, I might give it a trial. But if I didn't see any improvements, I would reset my system to the old configuration.

In education, that's not been what we have done. When the product starts to fail, we bring in even more "experts" with laptops, who pile change D, E, and F onto the system. Then we have other experts that say, gee, you need to try G, H, and I, because they seemed to work in New South Wales.

It's madness.

Posted by: Curmudgeon10 | December 31, 2010 6:19 AM | Report abuse

dannyk tells us, "It's painful as a teacher to have to force children to learn math procedures that they aren't ready to learn." So why do teachers relent to these mandatory pacing guides? I realize that's a rhetorical question, Danny, but it's one that could be remedied by the abandonment of the ubiquitous practice of whole group instruction for the bulk of the school day.

It's not only painful to force slower learners ahead, it's equally painful to force our brighter students to have to wait for others to catch up and be bored/turned off in the process.

A greater emphasis on individualized instruction is an absolute necessity if our education reform movement is ever to realize any degree of success. Standards based reform and fiscal reform are both worthwhile directions, but until US teachers start addressing the learning pace of each of their students our schools will be providing a relatively empty package to those they're supposed to directly serve.

Posted by: phoss1 | December 31, 2010 6:38 AM | Report abuse

Curmudgeon10 wrote:

"Does not anyone in the educational "community" approach this problem from the point of view that we should see WHAT WE HAVE DONE TO OURSELVES to cause to drop from the top to 25th? Why was a system, or approach that resulted in a good product so modified as to cause a defective product to be produced?"

The product is not defective. American students still perform at or near the highest levels in the world for their racial/ethnic groups. Scores have declined because the demographic composition of American students has changed, with an increasing percentage from lower performing groups. You could spend the entire federal budget on math tutors and not bring American scores up to those of Singapore and Shanghai because the children of America's new multi-culture just aren't as bright on average as their Chinese counterparts.

What have we done to ourselves you ask? We have simply become a different mix of people. And aside from immigration policy there isn't a whole lot that can be done about it.

Posted by: CharlesMcKay1 | December 31, 2010 6:53 AM | Report abuse

The 1960s and 1970s were a time of experimentation in the teaching of mathematics in public schools. As a consequence, many of the children of that era were not well grounded in the basic skills required to ably assist their own children. They are to a large degree incapable of helping their own offspring. Too late we have learned that the world does not revolve around us here in the United States, and those in other societies who chose to become well-grounded are now ahead of us in many areas needed for success in the modern world.

Posted by: Geezer4 | December 31, 2010 9:03 AM | Report abuse

I'm nearly retirement age and have always had a deep fear and loathing of anything to do with math. I think I was absent the day they taught arithmetic in first grade and I've never caught up. To top it off, neither of my parents finished high school and weren't at all interested or capabale of helping us with homework. Hiring a tutor was out of the question -- we were economically disadvantaged (we were poor). I think the problem back in my day was the teachers didn't explain the processes involved in solving math problems. It was more a matter of memorizing. I finished high school with only 1 credit in general math (all that was required then). Since it was never anticipated that I would go to college, algebra was not an option. So, now that I've returned to college (distance learning) I am required to take a finite math and statistics class, which scares the bejeepers out of me. No way I can do that without hiring a tutor to explain the process of problem solving.

I think the whole issue of poor math grades, skills, and interest has to do with the teachers. If you have lousy math teachers, students aren't going to be interested in learning it.

Posted by: Baltimore11 | December 31, 2010 11:12 AM | Report abuse

I agree with those who say the problem is in how math is taught. I have always considered myself sub-par in math and struggled with algebra in high school; and yes, it's because the teacher could not explain HOW an answer was derived. All she could do was refer you back to the book. If I had understood what the book said, I would not need a teacher! Somehow I muddled through with a B or C but my grasp of the principles was pretty weak.

Now for the scariest part of all: Fast-forward to the GRE for grad school. Consider that the pool of GRE-takers is ONLY college grads bound for Master's and higher. As weak as my math skills are... I test well above the national average for college grads. Now THAT'S frightening.

Posted by: Lila1 | December 31, 2010 11:31 AM | Report abuse

"American students still perform at or near the highest levels in the world for their racial/ethnic groups."

Untrue. Hanushek found that white students in the U.S. are significantly less likely to reach the "advanced" level of proficiency in math as students in 19 other predominantly white countries. That's not genetics.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | December 31, 2010 11:43 AM | Report abuse

Great discussion and the many insightful comments could provide a real critique of what ails today's public schools.

One question I'd like to ask is: How can we expect parents who were disenfranchised by the public schools themselves to be anything but "clueless" when helping their kids in math, or any other subject? (This is not a criticism of those parents, but of a system where the hole keeps getting bigger and deeper.)

As an art teacher, I was assigned to tutor a 3rd grader in math a couple of years ago. I was lost. The then, and still current, math program didn't teach multiplication or division the way I was taught. As a person with a master's degree, I couldn't help this boy or my own children, for that matter. As a matter of fact, most of the kids were having trouble with multiplication, but the teacher HAD to move on before the class was ready.

The continual change to math curriculum, has it improved math achievement? It doesn't appear it has and has turned math into a frustrating, and if a tutor has to be hired, expensive, activity for not only the kids, but for parents.

Posted by: ilcn | December 31, 2010 12:55 PM | Report abuse

In today's New York Times, there was a slightly different spin on math scores and the emphasis on standardized tests in Shanghai and their effect on the development of the creative thinking and problem solving skills of their students.

Posted by: ilcn | December 31, 2010 1:21 PM | Report abuse

It's a small sample, but, puzzled by some math problems my first grade granddaughter was assigned, I asked a friend, Headmaster of a private academy about the public school class. It looked to unbelievably me like she, the GD, was mentally poised to find the unknown in a simple algebra formula in the next lesson.

She, the HM, told me more about Singapore math than you mention. Indeed, selected second graders are doing just that, finding X. Most can't focus for hours, but they can do it. Further, the arithmetic problems seem focused on rapid mental calculation and are contributory to the algebraic goal.

Things are looking up, assuming no reactionary plots to hobble the upper half of the class to await maturity of the lower. The format looks so easy they too will grasp it with a few more months of maturity.

Posted by: Brede | December 31, 2010 2:08 PM | Report abuse

A large part of the evolution and expansion of Math and Science education has been pushing of subjects such as Algebra and Calculus down the educational pyramid. High school students today are learning subjects that, some fifty years ago, I did not have until past the freshman year of engineering school. I read that during the Middle Ages, Abbots would tell their older students in the monasteries that "with time and great effort many of them might be able to master long division."

And we have only been discussing Math courses. What about all the other curricula - English, History, Current Affairs, the Arts, PT, etc? They also have the same problems. How do we compare with the other countries cited in the Math studies?

Also, what types of extra-curricular activities do these other countries have? Are parents in Singapore shuttling their children around for dance lessons, sports leagues, and the like? Or are they mainly concentrating on the strictly academic subjects? What percentage of Finnish students work after school?

I learned a long time ago as a young engineer that I didn't have to know everything. I had to know how to FIND what I needed to solve a problem. That's why I prefer that students be given Math (and other) problems that ARE theoretical, because then the student will learn WHY the problem is solved a certain way and will better remember this than if they learn everything by rote, which is more quickly forgotten.

Posted by: Ex-Fed | December 31, 2010 5:32 PM | Report abuse

I must say that I have not yet read all of the comments, but I have noticed a glaring omission in all but one I have read -- discipline. I suspect that students in schools abroad do not get away with HALF of what the students here do. My sister is a teacher, and her school has just told them that they are NOT ALLOWED to post lousy grades on the report cards, but rather an "incomplete" (there are, of course, exceptions), only "good" grades; but this is now the policy. This country bows down to students and their parents in fear of being sued This absolutely unacceptable. If kids can't respect those at school and behave themselves, kick them the hell out.

Posted by: sodelany | December 31, 2010 7:02 PM | Report abuse


You're buying into the premise that the disparity between the average math scorers of 15 year olds in the U.S. and Singapore has some significance, in terms of either individual professional achievement or and/or the nation's economic competitiveness. I've yet to see a shred of evidence to justify such an assumption. There is, however, plenty of evidence that innovations and improvements in productivity, which give a nation its economic competitiveness, are generated not by average performers, but by higher performers. The U.S. system, for all its flaws, still produces plenty of high performers, as evidenced by the supply of Americans with advanced degrees in math, science and engineering. (Check the stats on this, and you'll see that we've producing more U.S.-born Ph.Ds than ever.)

One of your colleagues wrote a blog post that has some good insights in this area.

Posted by: pjkiger1 | December 31, 2010 8:15 PM | Report abuse

Untrue. Hanushek found that white students in the U.S. are significantly less likely to reach the "advanced" level of proficiency in math as students in 19 other predominantly white countries. That's not genetics.

Posted by: CrimsonWife

...not sure what subset of data you and Hanushek are looking at but the recent PISA tests support my claim. Overall, white students in the US do as well or better than almost all predominately white countries. Asian, Latino and black students also do very well in comparison to students in countries where their racial/ethnic groups are predominant.

Posted by: CharlesMcKay1 | December 31, 2010 9:03 PM | Report abuse

Also, what types of extra-curricular activities do these other countries have? Are parents in Singapore shuttling their children around for dance lessons, sports leagues, and the like? Or are they mainly concentrating on the strictly academic subjects?
I can't speak for Singapore but here in Japan kids spend at least as much time on sports, music, dance and the like as American kids. They do not concentrate only on academic activities.

Posted by: CharlesMcKay1 | December 31, 2010 9:11 PM | Report abuse

I think tutoring is a great idea, and it doesn't matter where or who it comes from. When you sit with a child one-on-one two things happen: first they recognize they and they alone not a class of 25 students are responsible and accountable for learning and answering each and every question in their material and second the mental fears and barriers break down and it becomes more of a communication filled with support, attention and challenge. An ideal math class might be able to offer these things, but in my experience I would rather teachers sit with students one on one for just 20 minutes 2 times a week and perhaps only hold group classes twice a week for collaboration and projects then have a child in class every day for 50-80 minutes with all the other distractions, frustrations and barriers that exist. Sometimes math requires hard work, focus and solitude that's what tutoring helps provide.

Posted by: libertyslantern | December 31, 2010 9:24 PM | Report abuse

First of all, the US is the only country in the world that lets the dumb kids get anywhere near any kind of international academic test, certainly after the age of 12.

And none of these "high-scoring" countries have anything like 15% of their students speaking a foreign language in their home like the US does.

These international comparisons need to be taken with large dump trucks full of salt!

Posted by: corco02az | January 1, 2011 7:17 AM | Report abuse

Liberty, tutoring is not necessary in most cases if the classroom teacher individualizes the pace of instruction for each student.

Believe it or not, when a teacher individualizes the pace of instruction for each student "...first kids recognize they and they alone not a class of 25 students are responsible and accountable for learning and answering each and every question in their material and second the mental fears and barriers break down and it becomes more of a communication filled with support, attention and challenge."

I know. I taught under a traditional model for one year, realized its numerous faults/inadequacies and then individualized for my last 33 years.

Posted by: phoss1 | January 1, 2011 7:22 AM | Report abuse

Happy New Year to you all.

I feel the following three attributes will help make the US parents feel completely clued-in as I see the reasons for the US student underperformance as a multi-dimensional problem:
a. Need for school supplement
b. Improve teacher quality-double the salaries and open the jobs for competition
c. Provide parents with free or professional academic counseling support

In the US, we as parents expect our children to do things independently and leave the house by 18. While children in the eastern countries get all types of help (including financial help) all the way until they get their first job. In this context, parents realize the help that tutoring brings to the child’s success in a good school. Mind you, the good schools cost a fortune in the eastern countries. Parents still go the extra mile to add tutoring to the child's schedule for all the benefits that it brings (pls see comments made by Libertyslantern). So from Jay’s article, the key take-away is to understand the need for school supplement if you want your child excel academically.

Most of the US parents expect the public schools to do better with results because we feel that is our tax money. But, that is not possible until the teacher salaries are raised and teaching positions are opened for competition.

Last but not least, parents need to take personal interest in their children’s academic growth either through professional academic counseling or through school activities.

Ironically, the government, can help in all the above. The entity we love to hate has helped us in many occasions in the past in advancement of science and social endeavors. Why not now to build the future of our country.

All the previous posts and wonderful ideas will be removed from on-line and archived somewhere in a dark room as bits and bites. How would we take these discussions, hash them out and get actionable items without creating a multi-billion dollar initiatives paid to some expensive consultants from a big label company? Now that is something where I am totally clueless.

Posted by: conscience1 | January 1, 2011 8:07 AM | Report abuse

Home School

Posted by: ObservantOne | January 1, 2011 9:35 AM | Report abuse

Whatever happened to teaching the basics of math WITHOUT a calculator to do the work? I have seen cashiers panic if they cannot ring up sales, enter the cash received and have the change shown to them on the register!

Hated math - wanted to get the homework done and correct so I didn't have to do more. Ended up with a double major in high school - math and music - and a great deal of my working years was spent in accounting. Took extra classes in college in computer bookeeping and accounting to increase my skills.

But the basics no longer seem to be taught - remember when we had to memorize the multiplication tables? Actually do math problems with a pencil and paper and our own brainwork?

Posted by: Utahreb | January 1, 2011 10:28 AM | Report abuse

Several things:
1. Chinese families are very small nowadays, especially in Shanghai. Because of the one-child policy (which was enforced more in cities than in the countryside) many families have only one child and the average is certainly well under two. This cuts different ways, but generally means better academic performance.

2. Teachers traditionally enjoy great respect in China. This is especially true of the first generation off the farm. Probably less true as more Chinese become educated and prosperous.

3. China has a tradition, going back many centuries, of admitting people into the civil service (a very good career) who did best on admission test. The test largely tested general literacy (which included knowing a lot of classical poetry by heart. Our own Foreign Service exam has some of that flavor.) Great academic achievement has always been understood to be a key to great success.

In this country, highly literate people are respected by some, despised as eggheads by many, and generally not highly paid. Specific skills and experience, plus all the other intangibles that add up to "leadership," will get you ahead, but school learning and book learning, not to mention good syntax and clear thinking, are not that valued by the average person.

Posted by: msh41 | January 1, 2011 12:00 PM | Report abuse

what a flood of great posts. Doesn't anybody have any football games to watch? My son married into a Wisconsin family, so I have my red cap with the big W on today.

I have one cautionary note for corco02az. Some of these countries may indeed have a lower percentage of low income families in the student cohorts studied, but the experts I have consulted say they no longer have samples distorted by a school system that kicks a lot of kids out young. Notice that many of the other industrialized countries have caught up with us in percentage of students going to and completing college, a pleasing sign of the decline of their bad old habits of only letting kids from upper classes get higher ed.

Posted by: jaymathews | January 1, 2011 3:39 PM | Report abuse

As an educator, there are 2 points I want to make.

Of all the comments I have read, none addresses the problem of children starting school not ready to learn. These are children who can't count to 10, don't know how to hold a book, have never been read to, can't recognize their name in any language, etc. Free, high-quality early childhood education for children from babies on up is the key to making sure that children of all demographic levels have an equal shot at school success. And don't even get me started on Head Start, which concentrates on developing social and behavioral skills and medical care, with little academic learning.

Second, the immigrants of previous generations came to this country wanting their children to succeed academically. They saw education, school attendance, postponing both marriage and childbirth as keys to successful careers. Can you say the same of recent immigrants? If children are not in school (working, caring for younger children, helping with housework) they are not learning math, English, etc. If they are not getting messages at home that school achievement is important and expected, few are motivated to succeed.

I am the daughter of immigrants from 1890-1930s and a high level of school achievement as well as cultural assimilation was expected. And, naturally, I worked hard in school and did succeed.

Posted by: shatom | January 1, 2011 4:15 PM | Report abuse

@CharlesMcKay: the data Hanushek used *DID* come from the PISA. You can read it for yourself here:

Posted by: CrimsonWife | January 1, 2011 6:14 PM | Report abuse

To me it seems educators want to blame parents. However as someone who successfully completed bachelors and masters degrees at major universities, I sure do not remember any parental help at all. My parents provided a home and food, but education was something that I accomplished with the help of teachers. In fact I was the first in my family to complete college. My parents were lost in math once I completed elementary school.

Posted by: Viewpoint2 | January 1, 2011 6:16 PM | Report abuse

I never thought about it until now, but thinking back, I'm sure I never asked either of my parents to help me with math. I went to school and learned whatever I learned there. The typical grade school curriculum and four years of math in high school. Algebra 1 and II, Geometry, and Calculus. Whatever they taught me in school worked, I guess, as I always had 98-99% on ever standardized math test I ever took.

Anyway, don't blame the parents if there's a problem. Blame the schools.

Posted by: John991 | January 1, 2011 7:37 PM | Report abuse

Hanushek' methodology:

"These students are assumed to be part of the cohort of 15-year-olds who participated in PISA 2006 one year later. "

He has compared two different tests with a big assumption.

Posted by: edlharris | January 1, 2011 9:10 PM | Report abuse

Some people will succeed in math no matter what situation they are given, others will struggle. For those who come into an algebra class without basic arithmetic skills they may struggle even more. For many students the extra distractions in the busy classroom, a mentality of confusion and a feeling of inadequacy in comparison to the more advanced students in their classroom are battles that need to be fought on their own fronts. Teachers in a classroom try to teach a bit to every learning style and to individualize for each of their hundreds of students, but realize they are people and still dealing with a large group. Does the boss of a large corporation execute everything perfectly in everyone's best interests every time, does a US president? In a classroom we really don't want to leave anyone behind, so the leader/teacher in the education process perhaps can't be solely relied upon. Ask yourself if you always like the same movies as everyone else? Even a great presentation, may leave something wanting for an attendee, even a great class may leave something wanting for a student. Good teachers do strive for continued improvement and perfection as all motivated people do, but let's assume that as we get our teachers up to the status of "perfect", we will need extra supports.

Posted by: libertyslantern | January 2, 2011 12:00 PM | Report abuse

"We will need extra supports." How true that is.

In today's Los Angeles Times there was one more article attesting to the tremendous influence of the family (The Upward Mobility Gap" by Doyle McManus). However, far from being a "defeatist" position, this writer comes up with the same solution as everyone else: an equal opportunity for every child to get a good education.

Almost everyone seems to agree with that but we disagree with how to achieve this goal. I strongly believe that education begins at birth and so we must find a way to provide these critically important experiences to preschoolers who don't get them at home. Every teacher will tell you that the "gap" is already well established by the time a child gets to kindergarten.

The new mayor of DC seems to understand this, so I hope he unites with parents and teachers in bringing the following to the children of DC: infant monitoring, health care, high-quality preschool, and experienced teachers with proven track records of success. In schools with serious behavioral and learning problems, there should be two teachers in every classroom.

To answer Jay's question directly: Yes, U.S. math scores are lagging because parents are clueless, but the school can compensate for this if they recognize what successful parents provide in the home and try to replicate some of those advantages for all children. Other countries have done it and so can we.

In response to those posters who said that their parents didn't know math but they still did well in school, I want to remind them that there are many degrees of parental neglect. A child whose parents provide a good home with all the basics (love, security, medical care, encouragement, involvement in school, etc.) will often do well in school even if the parents are high school dropouts. But the child who is seriously neglected generally needs extra support from society if he is to have a chance to succeed academically. Of course, there are many exceptions.

There is nothing more defeatist than the lie because when we lie we are saying that we can't face the truth. The truth is that the family has a huge influence on the education of the child. There is so much evidence to support this that I think it's a "fact" and not "opinion." Should we continue to say "No excuses, we can't do anything about the home" or should we say "How can we provide every child with the basics required to get a good education?" I vote for the latter.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | January 2, 2011 2:58 PM | Report abuse

At least in the cities, a job with Head Start or other preschool programs is seen as a jobs program (as are jobs in the public schools), so the adults in those situations are highly likely to be parents of the disadvantaged kids, or at least part of the community that has been failing those kids from birth. Even a former DCPS superintendent admitted that DCPS was not attracting strong teachers; their teachers tended to come from DCPS schools and UDC (which is weak to the point that closing it is not unreasonable)or other very weak schools. Even if you believe "high-quality preschool" is the answer (I don't), exactly where so we get these high-quality staff members in districts where too many teachers are very weak?

Posted by: momof4md | January 2, 2011 3:42 PM | Report abuse

I can't think of a better use of philanthropic money than to hire the very best teachers possible for DC children, starting with preschool. If citizens are willing to spend the money, excellent teachers can be recruited and retained.

I don't think high-quality preschool is "the answer" but I do believe it is part of the answer. The answer, as I see it, is to make certain each child has the basics to succeed in school, and that includes education from birth. If we could get every child ready for formal instruction by the time s/he enters kindergarten, I think we'd see a huge improvement. We simply cannot afford to fail in the endeavor to provide each child with access to a high quality education. The continued strength of our nation depends on our ability to educate our citizens.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | January 2, 2011 4:20 PM | Report abuse

The best solution would be for families, communities and society as a whole to reinstate the message that having kids you are unable to support emotionally and financially (without government aid) is just plain wrong, especially outside of marriage. As long as doing so is socially acceptable and is subsidized by those taxpayers who have made better choices, far too many kids will be raised in very dysfunctional situations.

Posted by: momof4md | January 3, 2011 1:16 PM | Report abuse

First of all, from what I understand, children are required to learn more complex math earlier than they used to, so I'm not sure that the parents actually do know the math required to get to college (they may only think that they do).

Second, the attitude to education in the West when compared to Asia is drastically different. I cannot speak as to Singapore specifically, but I know that in China, Japan, and Korea there is a much greater focus on education. Many students are encouraged to not just complete their homework but to study hard from an early age. Many also go to cram schools in the evening. This difference may also account for the differences in scores. Most kids I knew did their homework occasionally (if at all) and never studied until they went to university (sometimes not even then).

Posted by: Wander099 | January 4, 2011 8:44 PM | Report abuse

Success in math depends so much, like many other things, on attitude. Some kids are told from an early age, "you're good at math and you, are not." That's really unfortunate, because it so many times becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Here's a blog post on a new project that works to bring fun math games and activities home to kids sponsored by a local business and delivered through the schools:

There are lots of articles written and opinions published that the teachers and schools are the fault of our poor kids' poor math performance compared to the world. Statistically, who know. We all know what Mark Twain said about statistics. But the numbers do show that there is a lot of room for improvement.

Let's start with simple things like playing some games. Go to if you'd like to get a free game or find a cool game called Tic Tac Math for your iPad, iPhone or iPod Touch. Make math fun, play the games with your kids and you may just see where they need help in the process.

Posted by: mathevangelist | January 5, 2011 6:47 PM | Report abuse

The article seems to address only secondary aspects of the problem. E.g. parents can be expected to hire tutors more often in a country where the level of requirements is higher.
The primary factors explaining Singapore's supremacy over the US in math education is in fact the higher level of basic mathematical culture among all the involved: teachers, parents, textbook developers, and academic math educators.
This higher level is both: the cause, but also a consequence of better education.
Here is a link to the 200-page report of the American Institute for Research detailing the comparison of Singapore vs. US math education systems:

Actually parents and teachers can be helped (I am not so sure about textbook developers and academic educators) by reading the book "Arithmetic for Parents" of Israeli mathematician Ron Aharoni who went on teach math in elementary school. One of the result of his effort was making Singapore math programs popular in Israel.

Posted by: givental | January 5, 2011 8:13 PM | Report abuse

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