K-12 Math Education in the USA and its Detrimental Effects on the Future Minds of Today

The American math education, with the country’s current curricula and practices, continues to dwindle in effectiveness and perceived importance amongst the population. Each year, the country’s math education system produces abysmal scores from American students, resulting in its low ranking in math when compared to other countries. In fact, the United States ranks 25th in mathematics among industrialized nations, despite its global superpower status. With that said, why is it that the USA, a dominant country with its advanced strengths and technologies, continually fails to produce good results in math within its states? It simply doesn’t add up. However, the problem itself is the way math is essentially being taught.

This problem begins in kindergarten, where students start to learn in school, then worsens from middle school all the way to high school and beyond.

Elementary to Middle School (K-8)

From a child’s very first class in school, they are taught through a ritualistic routine that, inevitably, affects their perception of learning throughout their academic career. This routine is often coined as the “I, We, You” pattern and functions like so:

  • I – The teacher informs the students that they are going to learn a new topic: “Today, I am going to teach you about addition and how to add”
  • We – The teacher then shows their students how to do so through sample problems: “Looking at this example, we are going to add 20 plus 5”
  • You – After trying out the sample, students are handed similar problems to work on by themselves: “Use the example to help you solve them on your own”

This routine becomes monotonous, as there is little to no freedom in understanding how the process came to be and why. Without making sense of the process, American students see simply getting answers to be synonymous as learning, not the actual understanding of the concept itself. They become more dependent on these sample problems as an all-in-one guide instead of focusing on the reasons behind its sequence, leaving gaps in their math abilities as the teacher moves on to the next topic. 

With a shaky foundation in math basics, it’s no surprise that young American students falter in math scores. According to the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only  thirty-three percent of eighth graders were tested as math proficient at their grade level. Despite the New York school system lowering down their passing score to around thirty-one percent, math exam failures amongst eighth graders have tripled from 2012. Even though Charlotte, North Carolina has the highest percent of proficient eighth graders, it still seems quite shocking as it falls under fifty percent. With all these statistics, the learning of math only gets worse when children transition to high school.

High School (9-12)

The “I, We, You” pattern continues well into high school, further increasing their unhealthy reliance on memorization and external factors like Google to find the answers. With no struggle or efforts in critical thinking and problem-solving, American students garner notably less substantial math knowledge than other nations. 

In countries like Japan, emphasis is placed on challenging students to help them discover math procedures and properties for themselves, stimulating their minds and engaging their interests. But, with America’s strict educational regime, they placed low in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings, as the average American student performed close to four years behind the average Chinese student in the 2018 mathematics rankings. WIth Nation’s Report Card revealing that only around twenty-five percent of seniors score at their standard level or above, these increasingly worrisome statistics can be indicative of the stagnancy of high school math scores since the 70’s.

American students themselves realize the gravity of their educational situation, as their frustrations arise from their school system. From a New York Times prompt, teenagers conveyed their own thoughts on why their school system fails them:

  • The expectation for them to learn so much in such little time – This only leads to less retention and shoddy depth of understanding, resulting in learning gaps as teachers move from one topic to the next. That’s why students become more accustomed to memorization tactics that often get the answer but don’t build upon understanding.
  • Pressure to get good grades in school – Students feel pressured to do well so that they can get into good colleges/universities, which redirects their focus on grades instead of learning and finding value in what they’re taught.
  • Overcrowded classes and repetitive routine– Settings like this make it hard for students to be motivated in learning math, as the curriculum limits their creative exploration in math while making it hard to receive individual help.

With these rigid settings, American students are either discouraged from pursuing math beyond high school or ill-prepared for STEM careers. This affects not only the future of US math education, but the country’s progression as math is essential in everyday life (budgets, architecture, medicine, etc.).


An overhaul is desperately needed on the American K-12 math education in order to nourish children’s math learning the right way – but it can’t be done in a day. However, if a student involved themselves in math extracurriculars outside of the traditional American math class, they would be more prepared to tackle different problems as they enhance their math abilities. Such was the case for former Math Olympiad winner Richard Rusczyk, who participated in math clubs and contests when he was in school. Without that investment in math extracurriculars, he wouldn’t have found a love for math towards achieving one of the most esteemed awards of math excellence.

At Math Project, we are part of that active change in transforming American K-12 math education for the better. We offer students the math training they need, bridging any achievement gaps while boosting their math confidence. Get in touch to empower your child with math knowledge today!


Citations:
Why U.S. Students Are Bad at Math – usnews.com
PISA 2018 Insights and Interpretations – oecd.org
What Students Are Saying About How to Improve American Education – nytimes.com
Why so many U.S. students aren’t learning math – newsroom.ucla.edu
Why Do Americans Stink at Math? – nytimes.com
Does our approach to teaching math fail even the smartest kids? – greatschools.org

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