The Lag in Math & Science

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We may be a country with vastly more resources than other nations, but when it comes to math and science know-how, our kids don't seem to count.

  • In 1999, American fourth-graders scored at the international average in math and in the top tier in science, according to the Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS), regularly conducted to measure math and science achievement. But by eighth grade, U.S. kids ranked 15th in math and had dropped to the international average in science. By 12th grade, they lagged far behind their peers in most other nations in both subjects.

  • In 2003, U.S. eighth-graders continued to rank 15th out of 45 countries surveyed on math performance, according to that year's TIMSS study.

  • In 2004, less than one-third of eighth-graders reached a level of proficiency or higher in math, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

But perhaps even more concerning are findings that many parents and kids see the situation as no big deal. A poll released in February 2006 by the public opinion research group Public Agenda found that:

  • 57 percent of parents believe "things are fine" when it comes to the amount of math and science being taught in their child's public school.

  • Only half of children in grades 6 to 12 believe that understanding the sciences and having strong math skills are essential for them to succeed in life after school.

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Yet, in an increasingly competitive world, the pressure is on to improve. President Bush picked up the challenge this year, announcing in his 2006 State of the Union address an "American Competitiveness Initiative" that would encourage kids to take more math and science, train 70,000 high school teachers to lead math and science advanced placement courses, and bring 30,000 math and science professionals into public school classrooms to teach.

Meanwhile, corporations worried about the future hiring pool have begun their own ventures. Raytheon Company is one. In 2005, it launched its MathMovesU program, along with a survey of middle school students nationwide that found that:

  • 84 percent would rather clean their room, take out the trash, eat their vegetables or go to the dentist than do their math homework.

  • By eighth grade, 45 percent of U.S. middle schoolers find math to be boring.

The Raytheon survey also found that kids would be more interested if they were taught how celebrity musicians or athletes used math in their jobs. MathMovesU uses that interest, grant money and partnerships with celebrities to create an online learning program for kids that has attracted educators' attention nationwide.

On April 25, MathMovesU had Olympic gold medalist Apolo Ohno skate onto Capitol Hill, in Washington, D.C., to kick off the program's "Hippest Homework Happening" event. Instead of their regular math homework, middle school students around the country went online to time Ohno's gold-medal winning speed, to measure soccer star Mia Hamm's on-field moves, and to calculate the rotations behind BMX biker Dave Mirra's favorite trick.

Individual states have also done their part. When California education officials realized they were producing only half as many credentialed teachers as they needed in math and science, they launched a statewide initiative to recruit more teachers and create new ways to teach science and math concepts, in order to turn those figures around.

Articles in this series:

  • How Schools Are Confronting Their Own Problems: As kids stock up on notebooks, pencils and calculators for the new school year, teachers and administrators are beginning their fifth year under the country's No Child Left Behind (NCLB) education reform law. Click to learn more

  • The Lag in Math & Science: We may be a country with vastly more resources than other nations, but when it comes to math and science know-how, our kids don't seem to count. Click to learn more

  • Boys' Academic Failure: The worry that boys are falling behind girls academically has repeatedly made headlines this year. But debate continues over whether this is actually true. Click to learn more

  • The Race & Class Gap: While the gender gap is debatable, almost everyone agrees that when it comes to academic achievement, race and class count far more. Click to learn more

  • Decaying School Buildings: With all the emphasis on boosting students' academic skills, it's not surprising that efforts and resources to maintain older school buildings have fallen by the wayside. Click to learn more


On the Web

  • Healthy Schools Network: This non-profit research and advocacy organization is dedicated to environmentally healthy schools.

  • MathMovesU:  This initiative of Raytheon Company aims to improve the way U.S. middle school students view math.

  • The Michael Gurian Educational Institute:  Provides parents and teachers with information about how boys and girls learn differently.

  • Moms for Math:  Helps parents understand the importance of math, and offers them tips to help children with math.

  • Parents for Public Schools:  Works to ensure that all public schools effectively serve all children. They offer a multitude of parent resources.