It's no myth that American students trail students from Asian countries in mathematics. Although U.S. eighth-graders scored above the international average in the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), students in Singapore, Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei, Korea, and Japan outperformed their American peers, just as they did in previous surveys. Students in four European countries -- Belgium, Estonia, Hungary, and the Netherlands -- also outpaced U.S. students.
According to the study, only 23% of U.S. eighth-graders reach the high international benchmark, meaning they can "solve multistep word problems involving addition, multiplication, and division" and "use their understanding of place value and simple fractions to solve problems."
Given that more than three-quarters of U.S. students could not meet this threshold, it's not surprising that, according to the latest Gallup Youth Survey*, more teenagers name math than any other subject as the course they find most difficult in school. Twenty-nine percent name math generally, 6% specifically mention algebra, and 2% name geometry.
About equal numbers of teens mention the sciences and English as the most difficult subject: 20% and 18%, respectively. Foreign languages, history, and social studies are each mentioned by less than 10% of the sample.
In 2004, Gallup asked teens to name their favorite subject, and math ranked at the top -- although by a much smaller margin (23%) than the percentage of teens who say math is their most difficult subject (37%)**. More students also identify English as an area they lag in rather than an area they enjoy (18% vs. 13%), and there is gap for science (20% say it is the most difficult subject, while 12% say it is their favorite).
Gender Patterns in Academic Achievement
American students' math results on the 2003 TIMSS showed significant differences in boys' and girls' performance, with boys somewhat outperforming girls. Gallup data show a large gap in the percentage of male teens and female teens saying math is their most difficult subject: 44% of girls vs. 31% of boys. Boys also appear to be more comfortable with science: only 15% of boys vs. 23% of girls name one of the sciences as their toughest subject. The reverse is true when it comes to English: 25% of boys vs. 10% of girls say English is their worst subject.
However, when boys and girls were asked in 2004 to name their favorite subjects, similar percentages of girls and boys named math as their favorite subject, and similar percentages said science was their favorite. More girls than boys named English/literature as their favorite subject.
A Different Perspective
While American students may lag behind students in Asia and elsewhere in high mathematical achievement, a majority, 64% met the standards for intermediate mathematical understanding:
Students can apply basic mathematical knowledge in straightforward situations. They can read, interpret, and use different representations of numbers. They can perform operations with three and four-digit numbers and decimals. They can extend simple patterns. They are familiar with a range of two-dimensional shapes and read and interpret different representations of the same data.
And although the 64% significantly trails the percentage proficient in basic math in Asia and parts of Europe, it may be sufficient for the American workforce. When Gallup asked U.S. adult workers in 2003 to rate the relevance of various subject areas to their work, 56% said basic math was critical or very important to the work they do***. Only 23% said the same of advanced mathematics.
There is no question American students could and should be doing better than they are in math. In what New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman describes as a "flat world," American students are going to find themselves competing in a global workforce, where the outsourcing of formerly U.S.-based technical jobs will be seamless because of the Internet and other computer technologies. According to Friedman, this exportation already is seamless.
What should not get lost in the scramble to improve U.S. mathematical competency is that "right brain" skills -- creative thinking and problem solving -- as well as interpersonal skills, are rated most important to job success by American workers. More than four in five workers told Gallup in 2003 that these are highly important factors in doing their jobs well. Is it possible that in the new "flat" economy, Americans will have just enough mathematical competency to get by, but will continue to thrive based on a superior ability to invent, synthesize, organize, get along with people, and manage others?
*These results are based on telephone interviews with a randomly selected national sample of 1,028 teenagers in the Gallup Poll Panel of households, aged 13 to 17, conducted Jan. 17 to Feb. 6, 2005. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±3 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.
**The Gallup Youth Survey is conducted via an Internet methodology provided by Knowledge Networks, using an online research panel that is designed to be representative of the entire U.S. population. The current questionnaire was completed by 785 respondents, aged 13 to 17, between Jan. 22 and March 9, 2004. For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.
***Results are based on telephone interviews with 588 adults employed full or part time, aged 18 and older, conducted Aug. 4-6, 2003. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points.