We Don’t Value Academics Enough to Teach Math and Science Properly

math nerd

The title of this post is what it really boils down to – but there’s more to the story than apathy.

In “How Our Culture Keeps Students Out of Science,” Peter Wood argues that our dependence on foreign STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Math] students, including Bill Gates’ 2008 call for the extension of H-1B visas to these graduates, shows how poorly the United States develops its own STEMmies. Actually, we don’t develop too many – we just cross our fingers and hope that kids have their priorities straight and the resources they need:

“Success in the sciences unquestionably takes a lot of hard work, sustained over many years. Students usually have to catch the science bug in grade school and stick with it to develop the competencies in math and the mastery of complex theories they need to progress up the ladder. Those who succeed at the level where they can eventually pursue graduate degrees must have not only abundant intellectual talent but also a powerful interest in sticking to a long course of cumulative study. [...]

“It [contemporary American education] begins by treating children as psychologically fragile beings who will fail to learn — and worse, fail to develop as “whole persons” — if not constantly praised. The self-esteem movement may have its merits, but preparing students for arduous intellectual ascents aren’t among them. What the movement most commonly yields is a surfeit of college freshmen who “feel good” about themselves for no discernible reason and who grossly overrate their meager attainments.”

That isn’t terribly conducive to the study of science, math and its brethren. If you needed one line to sum up Wood’s argument, here it is:

“The intellectual lassitude we breed in students, their unearned and inflated self-confidence, undercuts both the self-discipline and the intellectual modesty that is needed for the apprentice years in the sciences.”

At PhiBetaCons, Mr. Leef beat me to a point Wood didn’t make:

“I think that a significant part of this problem is that to do science you need to be good at math. Sadly, as this recent NCTQ study found, math is often poorly taught in elementary schools because many of the teachers are weak in math themselves and ill-prepared to teach it.”

Not only are they ill-prepared to teach it, they don’t know it in the first place.

Elementary school teachers have a tenuous grasp of the most basic mathematics – and that isn’t an understatement.

Our elementary teachers score about 521 [out of 800] on the Quantitative section of the GRE, a subset of the test that examines algebra, geometry and basic statistical reasoning skills. A score of 520 is not only well below the national mean of 584; it’s around the 31st percentile of all test-takers. In other words, 7 out of 10 test-takers with undergraduate degrees score better on a basic math skills test than elementary teachers en route to graduate school [pages 13 and 18, available for download, 4.1mb Adobe PDF].

Our high school teachers fare little better. They pull in at 576 – about the 42nd percentile of all test-takers.

And these aren’t just statistics, they’re personified in communities everywhere. When I was in high school, I chose not to take AP Calculus because the teacher was such a useless dolt – he just plain didn’t know math [he still teaches at my alma mater, so if he's reading this, Hi!]. I waited and took calculus with the engineering students in my first semester of college.

K-12 teachers don’t know much about even the most foundational mathematics. That our schools don’t cultivate students interested in STEM careers shouldn’t surprise anyone.

6 Responses to “We Don’t Value Academics Enough to Teach Math and Science Properly”

  1. What a load of crap. The scores cited – “elementary teachers score about 521… high school teachers fare little better. They pull in at 576″ – are the scores of *students* who *intend* to pursue a degree in either elementary or secondary education – and not *teachers* at all!

    Next time, if you are going to say “teachers score x”, make sure you measure teachers.

  2. Stephen,

    The GRE is taken to enter graduate study – this is after a complete undergraduate course, or, at the least, the bulk of it. Those who are pursuing graduate degrees in the education fields attain the scores I cited – and those applicants tend not to be from wholly unrelated undergraduate fields. If you’ve got real information/data, share it. If it’s just uninformed semantics, take it elsewhere.

    And surely you’re familiar with requirements like those in the State of New York that mandate teachers to obtain MA-level degrees?

  3. JD, M.D. says:


    Actually, the appropriate therapy for STEM(I) is urgent coronary angiography followed by percutaneous coronary intervention, balloon angioplasty and stent placement or coronary artery bypass grafting.

    Just letting you know.


  4. JD,

    All of those options seem to be faster, cheaper and less complex than reforming public schools.

    When your practice expands, will you be able to take a few new patients? Perhaps everyone ages 5-17 in New York State?

  5. MV says:

    One important reason for the dwindling interest in Science and Maths education is the insignificant number of administrators (responsible for taking decisions in the field of education) who come from the science stream. Acquiring superficial knowledge is often regarded as great achievement and the result is that scientific progress is attaining a sort of saturation.

  6. Erin Johnson says:

    From 1985 to 2005, the total number of US engineering degrees granted fell 15%.

    Perhaps this is why Bill Gates is looking so desperately at other countries for technical people.

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