Thursday, November 7, 2019

What Accounts for American Students' Deplorable Math Performance? Too Much Social Media Use For One Thing

Image result for math images
According to a recent WSJ piece, ('Students Show Declines In Nation's Report Card', Oct. 30) by Tawnell D. Hobbs:

"American students continued a pattern of failing to make notable gains in a national exam, with resulting scores dropping in nearly all categories and on par with those from a decade ago.
Fourth-graders made the only statistically significant gain—1 point—in math, for an average score of 241 out of a possible 500, according to the 2019 National Assessment of  Educational Progress, known as the Nation’s Report Card, released Wednesday. The tests are taken every two years by a sample of fourth and eighth-graders in reading and math.

Over the past decade, there has been no progress in either mathematics or reading performance, and the lowest performing students are doing worse,” said Peggy G. Carr, associate commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the assessment. The center is part of the Education Department. Scores for the lowest performers mostly fell from a decade earlier.

Overall in math, the 2019 average score for fourth-graders was 241, one point higher than the last results in 2017. Eighth-graders scored 282 in math, one point lower than in 2017."

We further learned:
"Education Secretary Betsy DeVos called the results devastating and reiterated support for giving students more options outside the traditional education system.  She said in a statement:

'This country is in a student achievement crisis, and over the past decade it has continued to worsen, especially for our most vulnerable students. This must be America’s wake-up call. We cannot abide these poor results any longer.

This is choice given DeVos had no clue what her actual  role was two years ago in Senate confirmation and related hearings.  She was unable to even articulate her role in conjunction with improving education in this country,

Meanwhile, we read:

"Ms. Carr noted that eighth-graders declined in both subjects, an important grade level for the transition to high school. She said that it is “critical that researchers further explore the declines.”

Carissa Moffat Miller, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said the organization will lead a summit of state chiefs joined by national experts, educators and other partners to examine what must be done to improve literacy for all students."

And further (ibid.):

"Mike Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington, D.C. education think tank, said the disappointing outcomes are tied to the recession and the corresponding cuts in education spending.  He noted:

'The Great Recession was very painful economically, and that pain has bad repercussions for our kids, especially for low-income kids,” he said. “We now have states spending money again on schools, and one would hope that would translate into an uptick in future years.

But is all this really relevant to why American students are bombing out in these critical subjects?  I don't believe so, as a person who's taught math (in Peace Corps) to kids in equivalent U.S. grades 6-12.  As I wrote in this 2010 post, e.g.

"When I first taught mathematics in Barbados (Peace Corps) I quickly discovered my class was most fascinated by the mathematical entities known as groups. I'm not sure why this should have been the case, but suspect that a number of the (simplified) examples - using "clock arithmetic" I presented, had them linking groups to games! Irrespective of the reason, they took to groups like ducks to water and their math marks averaged highest whenever groups were tested."

The class referenced was  2nd form - or 11- 12 year olds, about the analog of U.S. 6th graders.  Other math topics taught included basic set theory, matrices and linear programming,.   One example problem from a test from 1973 that I'd saved:

 Given that: 

U = {a, b, c, d, e, f, g} where U is the universal set, and:

L = {a, b, c, d, e}

M= {a, c, e, g}

N = {b, e, f, g}

(i)Draw a Venn diagram showing the sets U, L, M, N and their elements/

(ii)List the members of the set represented by the union of N with the intersection of L and M

None of those students failed and they were all 'amped up' for every class   Nor were they "elite" students, i.e. hailing from the island nation's  highly selective grammar schools.  

What accounts for the difference from the American scene?  I suspect the several listed below are primary contributors:

1-   The time period was 1971-74, and no social media existed. There were no cell phones for kids to waste hours texting nonsense, 'sexting', bullying or other useless activities instead of cracking the books.  

2-  Parents were totally involved with kids' and their homework, ensuring it was completed.

3-  Math, as well as science courses were taught by specialists (graduates) in those fields, as opposed to Education grads.

I am convinced all of these, and certainly (1) ought to be seriously considered before blaming the lousy results on a recession. Why? According to Common Sense Media, teens spend an average of nine hours a day online  compared to about six hours for those aged eight to 12 and 50 minutes for kids between 0 and eight.  See, e.g.

This then tells me kids today have enormous chunks of time to spare, so there is NO excuse in the world for not being assigned homework, including over holidays.  Nor is there any excuse for not doing that homework to an exceptionally high standard!

Albert Einstein himself feared ('Ideas & Opinions', p. 157)  that our dependence on sundry information sources ("directly or indirectly controlled by private capitalists")  would subvert any efforts  for objective knowledge. Hence, could one day undermine actual human interactions in terms of  honest communications.  I believe such forecast negative impacts (especially in social media overuse)  are already impacting  our kids, especially coming up through middle and high schools.

The absence of parents involvement (2) is also something that can't be understated in terms of student achievement. Consistently I found that the students who attained the highest level of scholarship - in math as well as science -  had parents who showed up at every parent -teachers' meeting and sought ways to actively enhance performance.

 As for (3) it is seldom given the attention it deserves in discussions concerning lack of achievement in science or math.  But the fact is that specialists are generally best qualified to impart knowledge and skills in a particular subject.  (In Barbados the specialist teachers generally also had a Dip. Ed. - or diploma in Education - based on one year of supplemental university concentration in the skills needed for actual teaching).

The takeaway, again, is that you should not have a Phys. Ed. or English teacher imparting math or biology to students.  That's a recipe for academic disaster but a condition - from what I've been led to understand - all too commonplace in the U.S.   Another reason for choosing specialists over education majors is we know the aptitude (GRE) results for the latter tend to average in the mid 900s compared to 1150- 1300 for science specialists. (The GRE or Graduate Record Examination, usually taken in senior year of university, tests for verbal as well as math skills.)

Not mentioned specifically in my list is the role of local school boards.   As I pointed out in an April 26, 2013 blog post (What's Wrong With U.S. Secondary Education?'),   examining the factors contributing to piss poor U.S. secondary education:

"1.  Too much interference by School Boards- low level politicos:

This was the first factor that struck me on return to the U.S.: the degree of interference in all manner of school policies, even choice of textbooks and curricula. School boards, often highly politicized, sought to imprint their schools with their own biased marks, agendas and beliefs. Obviously, such micro-managed oversight will kill innovation and creativity in its tracks. Both of those are predicated on a spirit of free inquiry which absolutely cannot be pursued if hack politicians are looking over teachers' shoulders at every turn.

Thus, a teacher of biology who seeks to examine hominid evolution may be called on the carpet, just as one (say in Texas)

The effect of too many local school boards then, is that their interference - whether in the choice of  textbooks or class management - will tend to dumb down educational value.

All of these will require continued monitoring as citizens question why American students fail to compete with international peers, especially in math and science.  But as one expert interviewed by Stephanie Ruhle also pointed out, we need to integrate reading into science and math as well!

See also:

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