Does our approach to teaching math fail even the smartest kids?
Here’s why the math education your children need is most likely not what their school is teaching.
By Carol Lloyd
As sure as one plus one equals two, it happens year after year. Kids who have been bringing home A's in chemistry and acing AP Calculus arrive at college with visions of STEM careers dancing in their heads. Then they hit an invisible, but very painful, wall.
According to research from the University of California, Los Angeles, as many as 60 percent of all college students who intend to study a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) subject end up transferring out. In an era when politicians and educators are beside themselves with worry over American students’ lagging math and science scores compared to the whiz kids of Shanghai and Japan, this attrition trend so troubles experts it has spawned an entire field of research on "STEM drop-out," citing reasons from gender and race to GPAs and peer relationships.
One theory for the STEM exodus is that American students aren’t getting a good foundation in math — a necessary skill in many scientific and technical curricula. After all, about a third of American high school seniors don’t score proficient in math. But here’s the kicker: STEM attrition rates are even higher at the most selective colleges — like the Ivy Leagues — places where kids need killer AP scores and grades just to get in.
So why do even the most accomplished students burn out of STEM programs when they hit college? One recent article in the New York Times explored possible reasons — from the alluring grade inflation in the arts and humanities, to what one engineering professor characterized as the boring, largely theoretical “math-science death march” of first-year requirements.
That may explain the phenomenon, at least in part. But math experts around the country point to another culprit. Richard Rusczyk, a former Math Olympiad winner and the founder of the online math program Art of Problem Solving, is part of a group of math educators who sees the mystery of the disappearing STEM major from a different angle. It’s not that kids aren’t getting enough math, they say, but that we're teaching K-12 math all wrong.
Rusczyk's insight is based on a phenomenon he witnessed firsthand when he arrived at Princeton University and began studying math alongside kids who had attended the most prestigious high schools in the country. “These were kids who had never gotten anything but 95s and 100s on their tests and suddenly they were struggling and were getting 62s on tests and they decided they weren’t any good [at math],” he explains.
Next page: a math reality check