Obama on Math

President Obama outlined his reform agenda yesterday for the nation's public schools in a speech before the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. He promoted extending the school day, adopting performance pay for teachers, and encouraging the proliferation of charter schools, to name a few.

But what did he say about math, you are wondering.

Here it is - the math report. Obama's speech mentioned math education explicitly four times:

1. He reminded the nation that economic development and academic achievement go hand in hand and that the federal government can play a significant role.

"Investments in math and science under President Eisenhower gave new opportunities to young scientists and engineers all across the country. It made possible somebody like a Sergei Brin to attend graduate school and found an upstart company called Google that would forever change our world," he said.

2. He pointed out that American 8th graders rank in 9th place on international math tests and that Singapore's middle-schoolers outperform ours three to one.

3. He said that children who graduate from early childhood education programs are more likely to score higher in reading and math, more likely to graduate from high school and attend college, more likely to hold a job, and more likely to earn more in that job.

4. He addressed teacher shortages in math and science and said he supports offering extra pay to teachers in those areas, as well as new ways to recruit teachers into the profession and incentives to stay in teaching, particularly in high-poverty schools.

What else should be on his reform agenda?

By Michael Alison Chandler  |  March 11, 2009; 12:01 PM ET
Previous: Meet Celebrity Mathematician Danica McKellar | Next: No Math Teacher Shortage, Study Says


If there's a shortage of teachers in math and science, and we value math and science education, then as a society, we should pay more for them. That's simple economics. I doubt it will ever fly with teacher unions, though. (Math, science, and maybe economics teachers might go for it, but who else would?)

Of course, the same arguement applies to teachers in general. If we value good teachers...

Also, according to the Wikipedia article on Sergei Brin, he's the son of a math professor father and a NASA research scientist mother, who emigrated from Russia. I'm guessing a motivated immigrant guy from a good background was going to do okay regardless of President Eisenhower's policies. Not that that invalidates Obama's larger point. But glomming on to Google is a little unsavory.

Posted by: tomsing | March 11, 2009 7:23 PM | Report abuse

Obama should crack down on edu-fads like math investigations and everyday math.
I know he has surrounded himself with reformers but MI is failing all over the country creeping from school system to school system messing up our kids math.
They need a solid foundation in the basics and then some conceptual enhancement but MI is a disaster for the AYP groups and a disaster for the advanced students as well.

Posted by: edbrm1 | March 11, 2009 8:00 PM | Report abuse

I agree with edbrm1 that Obama should down on edu-fads. Given that he's mentioned Singapore, perhaps he can be convinced that schools should be given money for teacher training to implement this very effective program, like they tried to do at the Powell Elementary School in Washington DC.

He should look at the programs the NSF has funded, like the implementation centers that provide help in the form of coaching and professional development to schools that use atrocity-based math programs like Investigations or Everyday Math. They help teachers stay away from teaching the math that students need to learn and are quite good at it.

Incidentally, the school the President's daughters attend--Sidwell Friends School--uses Investigations. Not likely he'll notice, since his mother-in-law is probably teaching them the math they aren't being taught. But maybe the good parents whose children are suffering through Investigations can drop him a line to let him know what's going on. It would be a shame if the schools were able to say "If it's good enough for the President's s, it's good enough for you."

Let's not let that happen. Let's help the President construct a reform agenda that include world class math standards. Maybe he can start by looking at the report the National Math Advisory Panel wrote last year.

Posted by: BarryGarelick | March 11, 2009 9:49 PM | Report abuse

Comparing Singapore to the US really isn't a very good comparison. Singapore has a total population of 4.8 million. That's much smaller than NY City and fairly close to LA. And, that's their entire country.

The US's literacy rate is 99% (ranked 17th). Singapore is only 92.5% (ranked 78th).

But, one big difference is the culture. Remember, Singapore is the country that puts people in jail for chewing gum! They are a culture with laws for everything with harsh punishments for those who do not follow them. What's the punishment for skippng school or speaking out against the teacher in Singapore? Up to 6 lashes. What else can a Singapore student be caned for doing? How about smoking, truancy, gambling, fighting, lying, bullying or vandalism. And, that's even if they are in their school uniform but not even on school property. Additionally, Singapore has a 1:125 police to citizen ratio.

Compare that to the United States where discipline is a thing of the past. Corpral punishment by schools is absolutely forbidden and is often considered child abuse if administered by parents. The cost of breaking any of the above laws? Most likely nothing more than a court appearance and maybe a small fine. How are these laws enforced? Through a police force considerably smaller than that in Singapore. DC has a 1:369 ration (1/2 that of Singapore). LA, the city most comperable to Singapore's entire country: 1 to 426.

I'm certainly not advocating corporal punishment. I'm mearly pointing out that Singapore is a society of followers where acting out is strictly forbidden. Compare that to the United States which encourages free speach and and interactive classroom and where some parents see schools as a relief from dealing with their kids instead of the ultimate education opportunity.

How is a teacher in the US supposed to be held accountable for the performance of a rebelious teenager when there is no family support, no consequences to a student's behavior (being expelled from school is hardly a punishment for a kid who doesn't want to be there in the 1st place).

The No Child Left Behind Act was bad enough. Now Obama, who I normally support, wants to make an 8th grade Social Studies teacher's pay based on how well a kid learned from 7 previous teachers in a subject that he/she has no interest in and which, unfortunately, is not an easy subject to make exciting to an 8th grader.

Posted by: DerwoodC | March 12, 2009 7:46 AM | Report abuse

You wrote: "The US's literacy rate is 99% (ranked 17th). Singapore is only 92.5% (ranked 78th)."

WHAT?? 99% Who? Where? Most of the people I encounter can't spell worth a hoot...probably 50% of them! You don't have to go any farther than the comments on any WaPo article. People can't punctuate, they can't spell basic words, they don't know the differences between there/they're and its/it's, and we're 99% LITERATE? Well, I guess the definition of that word must have changed as I slept last night. Maybe it now means a person can read more than one word.

Posted by: flipper49 | March 12, 2009 8:59 AM | Report abuse

While I agree that cultural differences are key to understanding and comparing academic skills of students from different countries, and I agree that US students can do better in math and science than they do, I find it ludicrous to suggest that more discipline is the key. In fact, when it comes to harsh discipline, the US leads the world, with the highest per capita incarceration rate by far (http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/cri_pri_per_cap-crime-prisoners-per-capita). The main problem in cross cultural comparisons is taking account of attrition, i.e., students who never make it to the level being compared, so that the groups of students being compared are inherently different, e.g., more talented in certain countries than others. The US prides itself in making primary and secondary education available to everyone who wants it free, and in making higher education available to anyone willing to borrow and repay loans for that investment. In many other countries, a much lower fraction of students is provided education, and these tend naturally to be the more talented of the population, just as mostly taller persons end up on great basketball teams in the US. There is no one size fits all approach, but most kids who think they can't learn math are right - not because they can't learn math; rather, because they THINK they can't learn math. Like the pithy aphorism says, Whether you think you will fail or you think you will succeed, you are right.

Posted by: ccraigmorris | March 12, 2009 9:21 AM | Report abuse

Whenever you talk about the children of immigrants, or immigrants themselves, it's important to remember where their math education came from.
Sergei Brin came from Russian parents - I'm betting that they were educated in math and science in the Soviet Union. Not every Russian is brilliant in science and math - however I am impressed that the Russian immigrants in my town send their kids to extra classes to 'relearn' math. That's after they become familiar with American education here. I've seen the exact same thing with Japanese parents. It's not an accident that Asian students excel in math - their parents pay attention to what and how their kids are learning.
One of my favorite math professors these days was educated in Guatemala. Excellent professor who can reason his way out of any problem with elegance and clarity. He's puzzled that students taking pre-calculus in my college still struggle with fractions!
They were educated in the U.S, that's why!
I heard a story about the effect of the dreaded standards testing in my state (the teachers hate these tests and complain constantly about them.) Before the standards testing, one elementary school teacher approached another to check whether a certain math topic was covered in her grade. 'I don't teach math; I don't like it...' said the other teacher.
Standards testing changed that. We have that now. We just can't get national standards, which leads to states varying widely in what they consider acceptable. I hope Obama helps bring in national standards.

Posted by: KathyWi | March 12, 2009 9:46 AM | Report abuse

Lengthen the school year. Ten weeks of summer vacation is too much. More classroom time means more time for math.

Posted by: NoVA-too | March 12, 2009 9:49 AM | Report abuse

Has anyone considered going back to the math teachings prior to the 60's. Just think we put a man on the moon with that math. And, there were countless inventions with that good old fashioned math. I love these computers with the integrated circuits that were invented using Dinosaur math. I use that old math and it works great!

Posted by: Winnsboro | March 12, 2009 10:17 AM | Report abuse

Thank you NoVA-too!! If we are truly committed to reforming education in this country we have to go back to square one and reconsider the academic calendar. Everyone can still have the same amount of time off just spread it out through the years. How much time do teachers spend reteaching concepts in September and October. We are so busy teaching to the test and moving on to keep up with the pacing guide - we need to be concerned whether the children have grasped the concepts and everyone is LEARNING.

Posted by: appreciate | March 12, 2009 11:44 AM | Report abuse

DerwoodC: "Remember, Singapore is the country that puts people in jail for chewing gum!"

Nope. First, the ban is not on chewing the gum, but on the importation and sale of the gum. Second, nobody goes to jail for chewing gum. The penalty is a public shaming. The penalty could be jail if you are caught importing or selling a lot of gum though under a smuggling charge. Oh, and "theraputic" gum is legal, so there is a loophole people can use to get it.

Please, xenophobes, be careful what you hear about other countries. They are likely not true, and you don't gain anything by believing in such falsehoods.

Posted by: prokaryote | March 12, 2009 12:24 PM | Report abuse

"In many other countries, a much lower fraction of students is provided education, and these tend naturally to be the more talented of the population, just as mostly taller persons end up on great basketball teams in the US. "

OK, this is the argument that says in the US we educate everyone, but in Asian countries, only the elite are educated. The National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Dept of Education, evaluates the international math and science tests (TIMSS). They compared the top performing 10% of US students with the comparable group in the countries that outperformed the U.S. and found that those countries still outperformed our best students. Let's put that tired old argument to bed, please, as well as the arguments about culture. Take a look at the math books used in Singapore. They are available on the internet and are used by many homeschoolers. I've used them with my daughter. They are extremely effective.

Posted by: BarryGarelick | March 12, 2009 1:28 PM | Report abuse

Wow prokaryote, Derwood was clearly way off the mark in saying people go to jail for chewing gum in Singapore. You are right to suspect he's xenophobic after a statement like that. In fact to be sent to jail you must be caught importing chewing gum there and you are only publicly shamed for actually chewing it. I think we can all agree those are reasonable punishments for such heinous crimes. I'm sure we have similar penalties here in the States. You've definitely debunked Derwood's assertion that Singapore has lots of laws and harsh punishments to enforce them.

Posted by: bill3 | March 12, 2009 1:36 PM | Report abuse

..."Also we can start by sending these "BRILLIAN IDEAS" I just from my fellow American's.

..."This is America at its best/folks
...American GIVING/IDEAS, that will once again be the "SPARK" that changes the world, and once will show the world why America should lead the world.

..."It Only Takes A SPARK TO CAUSE A GREAT FIRE."---Spanish Proverb

Posted by: ztcb41 | March 12, 2009 2:03 PM | Report abuse

I'm a Singaporean currently living in the United States. You don't get shamed for chewing gum in Singapore. As a kid, I regularly brought chewing and bubble gum into the country from trips abroad to share with friends. I never got into trouble for it.

I do think, on the whole, that Singaporeans value primary and secondary education a lot more than Americans do. You can get access to a great education here if your parents are wealthy, but god forbid you live in a poor neighborhood with two parents who are too poor and busy to do much to push for better teaching in schools and a better learning environment. There are discrepancies in the quality of education and access to opportunity in Singapore, but the differences are not quite so stark.

There are, however, aspects of the Singaporean education system I would be loth to replicate here. The fear of failure, the extreme emphasis on success, and an exam-driven education system. In secondary school, my day started at 7.20 and ended at either 2 or 5 pm. And, two or three times a week, I would get a Math tutor at home from 7.30pm to 11pm. By the end of it all, I could get an 'A' on a Math exam without studying for it. But I would not put my own children through that regime.

Posted by: valisono | March 12, 2009 3:43 PM | Report abuse

The Singapore math books are very effective; they are now the text used in California.
By the end of 5th grade, a Singapore math student will be at least 1 grade ahead of our old text (SFAW) and 2-3 grades ahead of MI. That kind of difference is hard to make up with "conceptual understanding".
The Singapore books provide that too by the way..
I don't sell them; just use them to teach my 2nd grader at home..

Posted by: edbrm1 | March 12, 2009 5:40 PM | Report abuse

American culture is by and large indulgent having becoming a US citizen now. The primary and secondary education here sucks. The graduate schools in USA, especially in (natural and bio) sciences, and, engineering are excellent. So, there is a quantum gap. Who man these graduate schools ? Indians, Chinese and other Asians. Why ? Because professors at graduate schools know that the Asian system of education at the elementary and secondary level are more formal and thorough, though not necessarily innovative like in USA. Also, almost all secondary schools in Asian countries (India, China, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Pakistan etc., have formally mandated secondary-level exit exams without which you cannot get admitted to any engineering/medical school or university/degree college.) This secondary level exit exam is the same for every school and all the students, whether in ordinary or elite schools, must take it. Nothing of that sort (formally mandatory) exists in USA. The SAT I and SAT II are still optional and only good schools require it. When I was in high-school, I did algebra, trigonometry, analytic geometry (without any calculus) problems in plenty before I went out with friends. That used to be from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 noon, and, then from 6:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m., regularly on weekends. Now when I tell my son to do the same, he talks back to me and points out that his friends are no different - which is true. Math and science requires practice: which means time. If the existing culture 'degrades' such efforts, how can you expect native Americans to excel and maintain the technical superiority for long time ?

In USA my observation is that, aside all the above, the culture is radically different. People here call someone as a "nerd" because that person maybe good in math/sciences and hence may not be good with the opposite sex. (Women fare much worse by these social standards.) It is quite fashionable to be a investment banker, business major, journalist than a serious mathematics or physics/electrical engineering major. It is more socially acceptable if you can play good basketball and other sports than if you are good with academics - especially mathematics. The universities heavily invest on athletics than academics. Is spending money on athletics a good investment for the fiuture, when resources are limited ?

Academics is for the looney singing looney tunes in isolation from the easygoing bar-crawlers. If this maxim survives, USA is going to be in a lot of trouble. Already the good, elite schools have opened shop in India, China etc. Soon, they will transfer operations there, and their "headquarters" shall be here. In other words, USA's technical superiority shall never rise. The famke will go, and the dollar shall fall further - because the consumer confidence in USA's technical capability shall take a nosedive.

Posted by: DebChatterjee | March 12, 2009 5:44 PM | Report abuse

President Obama correctly identifies the US abominable rank. And, I do hope he succeeds with this endeavor.

The National Math Panel has strong recommendations about what should be taught. Yet, few states embrace these recommendations.

And, why is it that President Obama's children attend a school that has TERC Investigations for math? I doubt he is doing homework with his children! The NMP clearly states that constructivist programs such as TERC Investigations, Everyday Math and Trailblazers are not providing our children with the necessary skills to succeed in math.

So, how is it that the new administration wants to improve our poor ranking?


Posted by: kltroidle | March 13, 2009 7:21 AM | Report abuse

While all of you foreign-born Bozos are busy complaining about the quality of an American education, you're still getting your children educated here. So the question is, are you still here for your children's welfare or just for the jobs? If your primary concern is a quality education for your children, then maybe you should send them to the loving graces of the madrasses in the tribal areas of Pakistan

While were at it, I don't see too many people busting down the doors to get into foreign schools. My own exchange education is fairly typical of most Americans, who study abroad for language and culture, not the other academics. In all fairness, though, most foreign exchange students aren't here for academics. My experience with foreign exchange students is that they may be here for a number of reasons, but the main reason being that they see this as a path to immigration, not necessarily to acquire skills that will help them in their home country.

Lastly, I'm acquainted with a fair number of foreigners from these Asian countries, seeing as I'm the offspring of an Asian parent. I can tell you that, while most of them know how to make a penny scream, most of them would be lost doing any kind of math outside of money.

Posted by: JoStalin | March 13, 2009 12:17 PM | Report abuse

I am a Singaporean living in Singapore, and I happen to love this country for the education system. There are many paths to reach success in this country, and it is the parents in my country who choose to add pressure to their children. It is a Confucian practice for parents to aspire the best future for their children. So, the pressure to succeed and competitiveness is evident in the country.

Nonetheless, Singapore is now maturing as a nation since its independence, and this is shown by the growing acceptance of the liberal arts and sciences in mainstream society. It is inevitable that a small country like Singapore will place its bets on specific sectors that will deliver the highest possible returns in GDP and employment for their citizens. This is why Maths and Science are widely promoted to the citizens as the education which is demanded by the economy.

So, the history, size and culture of my country plays a pivtol role in encouraging the importance of an education that is formed by Maths and Science. This is an aspect of Singapore's education system, which is presumbly admired by President Obama.

I have no doubt that should parents focus their attention to their child's education and work in concert with the US government, the United States will surpass countries in their per capita literacy levels, including Maths.

Finally, whatever you've seen in previous postings that describes the way of life in Singapore is all wrong. Visit my country and experience for yourself the cosmopolitan culture of Singapore, while admitting the choices made the government are conceptualized due to the small size and aspiration to give their citizens a better life.


Posted by: darrenyan | March 13, 2009 12:30 PM | Report abuse

Three to one? What does this mean? Their scores are three times higher? For every one U.S. student proficient there are three in Singapore? How can he make such an ignorant statement about Math of all subjects?

Posted by: advaitamoon | March 13, 2009 3:42 PM | Report abuse

Comparing the US to other countries is a little absurd. There is no other country that has the diversity we do. Having some type of federal standards sounds good - but um, No Child Left Behind is a disaster.
What works in rural mississippi is unlikely to work in downtown LA. Or what works in Nebraska probably won't work in Florida. Other countries (most of them) are smaller, and have a homogeneous population.
To think the federal government can solve these problems is a little far fetched.
Also - well, yes, people come HERE to study science/math/engineering. Then we tell them to leave - because we are idiots who think that we shouldn't increase the number of visas for educated people in this country.
(I'm saying all this as someone who has a master's degree in math and is being pursued - even in this economy - for several jobs).

Posted by: atlmom1234 | March 13, 2009 5:45 PM | Report abuse


You are the typical Americanized ostritch. Yet that we foreign-born "bozos", and now US citizens, get the racial rant from some like you is atypical.

Grudging at the American education system is not a crime or anarchist. It is simply fair to state the grievances and comment upon them. That's the hallmark of free speech, Mr. Jim Crow. And because you were born here does not mean that you understand everything that goes here correctly. Mathematics education is sorely lacking, and especially in the middle schools. The glory of the yesteryears, when US was at its technical peak 1950s to 1980's, was because of the education levels were not "politically correct" - so that "dumbing down" syndrome did not happen. That trend has been sadly reversed. That's why satellites get blown away and other countries are now coming upto par with USA. Read Thomas Friedman's book: THE WORLD IS FLAT. Got a clue ?

Posted by: DebChatterjee | March 13, 2009 7:19 PM | Report abuse

Get rid of "math education experts", the type who've given us Everyday Math and other abominations.

One problem that I see with education is that people who've been in education their entire lives completely lose sight of why we educate people to begin with. We educate kids to be successful in life not just to be successful in school. Success in school is not an end in itself.

Regarding programs like Everday Math: I've heard lifelong teachers defend this program on the grounds that some kids learn better with it. But they're missing the point, because the techniques taught in these programs do not scale to more complex calculations nor do they apply to algebraic manipulations. Teachers are often so focused on "student success" that the don't see that what the students have supposedly learned isn't even applicable beyond the current school year.

Posted by: physicsteacher | March 14, 2009 5:00 PM | Report abuse

"They compared the top performing 10% of US students with the comparable group in the countries that outperformed the U.S. and found that those countries still outperformed our best students."

In many (if not most) American schools, administrators are against grouping students by ability (at least before high school) and providing the bright kids with more challenging material. They tend to spend most of their efforts on kids who are struggling and often basically ignore the high achievers. Asian countries do not do this.

I have friends who attended high school in India and then elite private universities in the U.S. (Harvard, Stanford, etc). They've told me that college was easy compared to their high school experience.

Pres. Obama's speech called for giving all students a "challenging and competitive education" but not every student is going to be challenged by the same level material. Our schools need to stop squandering the potential of our brightest students.

Posted by: CrimsonWife | March 15, 2009 10:17 AM | Report abuse

Hey, Everybody knows that Harvard is easy. The mean GPA there is 3.53.

Posted by: someguy100 | March 16, 2009 8:20 PM | Report abuse

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