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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

is the executive editor of GreatSchools and mother to two raucous daughters, ages 9 and 13.

Comments from readers

"I wonder part of the problem is that most math teachers usually grade assignments and tests based on percentage correct answers. What if they looked more at the process the student uses to set up the equation, draw a diagram the object described, or predict the shape of a graph. Ask students how they chose the steps or procedures they used to get their solution, and explain how an alternate procedure could prove or disprove their answer. Encourage students to think about how they get solutions rather than just checking the bottom line-- or worse, the answer sheet. Yes, I've seen many classrooms where students write only the answers on the assignments and tests turn in. Their teachers don't spend nearly as much time grading papers as the English teachers who read essays, or Social Studies teachers who ask students to explain the significance of events, and their impact on the places where they happened.. It's time to stop rewarding students only for the number of right answers and help them to realize the importance of asking the right questions. "
"This speaks to what I see with my SAT & ACT tutoring students. The ACT is gaining popularity at a staggering rate, largely because the question format doesn't require much "outside the box" thinking like the SAT does. "
"This article is correct, math education is failing too many students, even the "good ones" And yet, those students are held up as proof that the system works. The US K-12 school system is tough to change. Big systems have a lot of inertia, like the Titanic heading towards the iceberg. But proving that the system is working by showcasing the few students who make it through is like saying that the Titanic was a success because some of the passengers made it to New York. We have to make education work for all kids, not just the survivors. "
"This is what we talked ,our kids are not being taught the basics. "