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Historical Context & Current State of the Issue

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A New Outlook on Mathematics Education

Historical Context & Current State of the Issue

For much of the twentieth century, the US public education system was unrivaled in the world. However, since the 1970s, reading and math scores have plateaued, while other countries have soared past the US levels. Many factors are attributable to low performance in public schools, such as the inability to reward/punish teachers based on merit, the difficulty of attracting teachers to underachieving schools (due to lower salaries resulting from a poorer tax base, as well as the desire from teachers to teach high-potential students), and the use of tracking, which eliminates the possibility for struggling students to learn amongst higher performing students.

Currently the US ranks 12th internationally in literacy and 25th in math. The global rankings are to a certain extent simply a benchmark; however, they are becoming increasingly relevant given that globalization is forcing Americans to compete with global job pool. It is critical that the US educational system be reformed so that our up and coming generations have the skills and critical thinking capabilities needed to be effective within the workforce. As a testament to this, unemployment for individuals that did not graduate from high school is 15.2%, while the unemployment rate for individuals with a bachelor's degree is only 5%.

In "The Achievement Gap: Myths and Reality", author Mano Singham notes that mathematics play a crucial role increasing degree completion by students who enter college, as students who advance beyond Algebra II are twice as likely to complete a bachelor's degree if they enter college. He argues that this is because traditionally qualitative courses (e.g. biology, psychology, economics, government, and geography) are becoming increasingly quantitative, and students that have fallen behind in mathematics lack the needed confidence in their quantitative skills to perform well in these courses. Quantitative skills are important to doing well in these courses; however, it is misleading to say that mathematics are critically important, and perhaps more poignant to say that the way in which mathematics are taught is failing the youth in America. Currently, only 14% and 18% of eighth graders in Mississippi and Alabama, respectively, are proficient in math. Math proficiency is low across the nation, for example: New Jersey (40%), Connecticut (45%), Arizona (26%), and California (24%).

Test scores show that the US does comparatively well in elementary education, but middle school test scores are low, and there is a significant drop out rate from high school within the first two years. When students fall behind, they are placed into remedial education classes. These classes are boring for the students, and they are often taught by low-scoring teachers, as opposed to the creative and dedicated teachers they need. In 2001, Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) as a way to improve public school performance and to stop students from "slipping through the cracks." NCLB sought to measure every student and strive for 100% proficiency in reading and math across the US. The idea is simple: individual teachers and schools are rewarded based on how well their students perform on the standardized tests administered by each test. A strong criticism of this bill has been that it has resulted in teachers "teaching for the test", not trying to ensure that each student is truly learning in a way that will help them become better learners. It is not an effective strategy to incentivize teachers to perform better, while doing nothing to address who students are taught. Additionally, and more so due to recent budget cuts, NCLB has pressured schools to place emphasis on math and reading, while cutting art, science, and humanities courses. These components of a well-rounded curriculum should not be curtailed simply because the way in which mathematics is taught is not effective.

Alternative Solutions

There have been many localized success stories in improving performance on mathematics scores. For example, Kipp schools have used innovative teaching strategies and longer class hours to achieve results. However, they are costly to operate given the increase in teaching hours. Other programs have focused on making summer enrichment programs available to low-income students so as to combat the problem of "summer loss". One thing that all progressive approaches in education share is that they involve a more dedicated approach towards engaging students and adapting to the learning styles of individuals. In this section, I want to focus on the downfalls of the model adopted by many Asian countries, which attains results through what can be described as an extreme commitment to a No Child Left Behind strategy.

Outside-school learning, generally referred to as shadow education, refers to the large-scale use of structured tutoring programs, review sessions, and cram schools in order to enhance student performance on standardized exams. Such programs have been instrumental in the success of high achieving countries, such as Japan and Korea, on international comparisons of mathematics achievement. Extensive programs can be seen in Greece, Turkey, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, in addition to Japan and South Korea. Policymakers have therefore begun studying these programs and postulating as to have feasibly these programs could be implemented in the US, and how effective they would ultimately be.

The countries that have high usage rates of shadow education are the same countries that have very competitive links between high-stake standardized tests in secondary school, the best national, and future career opportunities. Such brutal linkages can be seen in Taiwan, Hong Kong, japan, and Greece. In these countries, there is an explicit national strategy to drive achievement in on standardized tests. In addition to achievement being national policy, there are high cultural expectations for achievement in international standardized tests in the wake of what is seen as a dangerous pace of global competition. A downfall of these programs is that they require a significant personal financial investment on the part of students to increase their standardized test scores. Given the cost of these programs, countries with widespread use of shadow education are susceptible to exacerbated achievement gaps based on socioeconomic status.

While at UNC, I was in an exchange program for three semesters with 15 students from Hong Kong. These students were incredibly accomplished and capable, especially given that they one to two years younger than the US students in my program. The majority of them received

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