The Economist: A building block

For many people, the subject of mathematics conjures images of confusing lectures and highly theoretical concepts with little practical application. While a basic understanding of elementary processes is obviously essential to everyday life, it can be less clear just how important math is to the economy, technology and virtually every other science. New theories are shaping diverse fields ranging from genetics and natural sciences to engineering and computer sciences.

I have seen this first-hand through my professional career. I majored in math at Baylor University and added to that a Ph.D. from Rice in economics. I have blended math into my work since the very earliest days, developing massive models of the economy which rely heavily on math concepts. I also have seen how mathematics plays into public policy, banking and other industries, biosciences development and much more. The applications are everywhere.

That's why it's so alarming to me to see how poorly the United States is faring in mathematics compared to other countries. The OECD, or Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, ranked the United States 25th of 34 peers on a math test for 15-year-olds. Some 470,000 students worldwide took the test, with 5,233 from U.S. schools. While we ranked 14th in reading, the poor showing in math is alarming.

The Program for International Student Assessment - PISA - which the OECD coordinates, was first implemented in 2000 and looks at student performance in reading, science and math.

The 2009 testing put U.S. students at 487 on a scale of mathematics literacy. That's lower than other OECD countries such as Korea (with a score of 546), Finland (541), Switzerland (534), Japan (529), and Canada (527), among others. The Shanghai region of China was the top scorer at 600, and several other regions of China as well as other non-OECD nations, such as Singapore, outscored American students.

A somewhat older study, the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, compared performance of more than 500,000 students worldwide (33,000 in the United States) at three grade levels. This initiative sought to go beyond simply looking at scores on a test; instead, comparisons included reviewing curricula, instruction, lessons, textbooks and more.

One of the most interesting findings in the TIMSS is that U.S. students in fourth grade were above the global average in both math and science. In eighth grade, we were still ahead in science, but slipped to below the international average in math. At the end of secondary school (twelfth grade here), the U.S. was among the lowest performers in both math and science.

Differences in the way we teach math were noted; in particular, the researchers pointed out that goals for U.S. students were often "how to do something," with less emphasis on the underlying mathematical concepts which could be applied to future problems.

Here's one more piece of bad news. Texas students tend to be among the worst performers in the United States, ranking 46th in average math SAT scores.

Clearly, this pattern presents a problem. More complex, of course, is how to solve it. Looking across the international studies, a few points stand out. First, as mentioned, we don't necessarily start out behind; fourth-graders tend to hold their own against those in other nations. One study noted that instructional time didn't seem to be correlated, nor did homework.

Most importantly, it's not simply a question of money. An OECD report on annual expenditures per student ranks the United States in the top five for both primary and secondary education (well above the OECD averages). Several nations (such as Korea) score far better than the United States while spending far less. Adequate resources are essential, but simply throwing more money into the system is unlikely to fix it.

So where do we go from here? I'll save my long answer for another day, but here are a few things we should consider.

What can we learn from teaching methods in other nations - methods that work? There are indications that better outcomes can be realized with focusing on underlying concepts (rather than "how to" lessons) and learning fewer topics at greater depth. Also, other countries tend to get into topics such as algebra earlier than we do. At risk of setting off a firestorm, I would suggest that our current testing process is moving in the wrong direction.

The importance of mathematics can hardly be understated. To succeed as a state and a nation, we must do a better job of preparing our students for success in the large spectrum of fields that use math as an essential building block. They are the growth engines of the future.

Dr. M. Ray Perryman is president and chief executive officer of The Perryman Group (www.perrymangroup.com). He also serves as Institute Distinguished Professor of Economic Theory and Method at the International Institute for Advanced Studies.