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ETpro's avatar

What should the US do make math and science education here competitive with the best in the world?

Asked by ETpro (34216 points ) July 31st, 2010

Currently, our grade schoolers test a bit below the top countries kids, but not terribly. By middle school, we are beginning to fall further behind in math and science and American High Schoolers test near the bottom of the developer world in math and science.

Here’s an article from a group who thinks something akin to a school voucher system is the answer. Agree or not, do see the test score tables near the bottom of the article. They are informative.

Here’s a previous question on US education. The question is a bit different in focus, but offers some good thoughts. And the first answer in it contained a link to a wonderful blog written by a fellow who was a picked on nerd while in school and is looking back now as an adult, making his own recommendations about how to improve things.

Some think the influence of psychologist Jean Piaget and the constructivism http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constructivism_(learning_theory) methods of teaching founded on his work have led to classes where kids are allowed to “invent” math on their own so as not to inhibit their creativity. Interestingly, that jibes pretty well with the nerd’s lament.

How would you make sure American kids stay in school to graduate, and come out with the skills they will need for success in the 21st century?

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17 Answers

theichibun's avatar

1 – Fix the education system
2 – Don’t let people who know nothing about teaching tell teachers how to teach
3 – Don’t tell teachers that their job is going to partly rely on how well kids do on standardized tests
4 – Don’t have a different standardized test for every state, then pretend that you can compare results in a way that means anything
5 – Don’t let different groups of students in different take the same standardized tests and then pretend that you can compare results in a way that means anything
6 – Don’t let people who have never taught at all tell teachers who to do their jobs
7 – Don’t let people who taught 10, 15, or 20 years ago tell teachers how to do their jobs
8 – Don’t have different standards for every state and then pretend that you can compare grades/test scores between those states in a way that means anything
9 – Don’t keep teachers around that suck only because they’ve been around for a while
10 – Don’t let people who send their kids to private school have a majority voice (or any voice that amounts to anything really) in how to run public schools
11 – Don’t Let people who have never even set foot inside a public school tell teachers how to their jobs

Tomfafa's avatar

Good question… I was on the math team at stuyvesant high school (my alma mater) and america was always… not first. The government sucks at educating… get rid of the union…

LuckyGuy's avatar

@theichibun Those were a good list of don’ts So what would you do?

GeorgeGee's avatar

I think the USA lags behind many countries in most areas of education, not just math and science. Arts education has been decimated in recent years. According to several recent studies, we’re also lagging in creativity. This doesn’t bode well for our future as an industrialized society. I think school is only part of the solution, learning should be going on most of the time, year round. Families that realize this choose entertainment, vacations, and even dinner conversation with a thought to how it will help young minds develop. The problem lies of course in families where there is no interest in this and education is viewed as someone else’s responsibility.

LuckyGuy's avatar

Here’s my “Do ”’ list if I ran the world.

1) Encourage parental involvement. Invite them to sit in on classes regularly. Students get extra credit for bringing a parent or guardian.
2) Value scientists more than sports figures. Drunken celebrities should not be role models.
3) Every day give examples of why math and science are important.
4) Standardize tests for all states so there is something tangible to measure against.
5) Some children need to be left behind. Have classes for slow kids.
6) Some children need to be advanced. Have classes for fast kids.
7) Some teachers need to be fired.
8) More teachers at lower pay goes further than fewer with high pay and many years of tenure
9) Put video surveillance cameras in problem class rooms. Web enable the cameras so the parents can access them from anywhere.
10) Spend more time teaching math and science and less on basket weaving.

ratboy's avatar

Outsource the production and education of children to a civilized nation.

polinsteve's avatar

I think it is a cultural problen.

I think the US as here in the UK has forgotten the importance of a) discipline and b) formal teaching.

To teach kids we need to put them in a disciplined environment. It is time the dog wagged the tail rather than the tail wagging the dog. Kids don’t know what is best, so overly child centred learning is not ideal.

Once we get the environment right, we need to get back to teaching. Forget much of this idea that kids can sit in a group and investigate. That has it’s place as just a small part of the whole. We need to spend more time on the nuts and bolts, the foundations. You can’t build a skyscraper on mud and you can’t educate on a muddy or unclear mind. Maybe old fashioned, but go back to the x tables by rote. Mark mistakes in red ink. Encourage and motivate, make lessons interesting and relevant. Look how lessons are done in poorer countries with better results, the traditional ways which work.

talljasperman's avatar

have more science info accessible to everyone…like all grade levels on a free internet site…

gorillapaws's avatar

@polinsteve I couldn’t disagree more.

The biggest problem with math and science education from what I’ve seen is that there is too much focus on rote memorization of facts and not enough of a focus on the scientific method, discovery, evaluation of evidence and information. In this day-and-age of wikipedia, the internet, and rapidly advancing science, many of the facts we learn in grade school will have changed by the time we might need to put that knowledge to use. Our understanding of the atom has become so much more sophisticated over the past 100 years for example.

Sure, facts are important, but learning how to think critically and to solve problems with reason is infinitely more valuable. Shows like the MythBusters should be a model for how science is taught. Start with a question, ask the students for ideas on how they could test it, perform the test (if possible), do a thought experiment, or discuss real research that has dealt with that topic focusing on the process of how the “real” scientists figured out what we know. Then go into the analysis of the results, and discuss potential avenues of future research solving the new questions that may have come out of the results. Have them work through the problem-solving process, use the socratic method.

We conducted labs when I went through school, but usually it felt like we were “going through the motions” instead of acting like detectives trying to solve a mystery. There was no wonder, excitement or fun, just following a series of steps written like a recipe in a textbook.

Basic math and geometry is absolutely critical, but as you start to get into Algebra 2 and Trig, the utility and applicability to what the average person will need later in life begins to rapidly plummet. Again, I think the emphasis should be on learning how to reliably find the information you’re looking for, than to memorize dozens of formulas that you’ll forget a week after the class is done for the year. Doing math proofs should be encouraged because the student learns how to solve the problem on their own. I can recall that I would regularly forget formulas while taking tests, but I was able to quickly derive it right there because I knew the reasoning behind it.

I think they should teach basic propositional logic in all high schools. Every high school graduate should be familiar with validity, soundness, and logical fallacies. I also think all students should be taught the basics of a high-level programming language such as Python. I think having a basic understanding of how computers “think” is important as they increasingly dominate our lives.

theichibun's avatar

Honestly, whatever Do list you have would get ruined if people don’t follow the don’t list. You can have involved parents and tests that work as comparisons across the country and classes that are better molded around the students in them, but if you also have people who don’t know how to run a classroom telling teachers how to run a classroom it doesn’t matter.

polinsteve's avatar

An interesting take. I agree with you after a certain point, let me explain.

My younger daughter started school at 41/2. Her first school let the kids choose books at random, know formal assessment of their needs. She was not interested. We moved her to a different school with a formal reading scheme, they were allowed books only at the appropriate level. Within two weeks she was interested and progressing fast. Within six months she finished a good book and said, “Dad that book was just like watching a video”.

She was given the basic tools and a love of books. From a slow start she achieved a 2.1 in classics at one of our top universities.

I think you and I disagree to a very minor extent. I follow your logic and agree if and when the basic blocks have been laid. I think up to about 10— 11 we should lay those blocks. 12 – 14 build on them and consolidate the early years. I think that 15 or so is the time to develop their deeper investigative skills.

I found one comment very interesting, “We conducted labs when I went through school, but usually it felt like we were “going through the motions” instead of acting like detectives trying to solve a mystery. There was no wonder, excitement or fun, just following a series of steps written like a recipe in a textbook.”

What a waste! That is a good reason to under achieve. Poor teaching is a great destroyer of enthusiasm, whereas good teaching motivates regardless of the teaching method.

To sum up, 14–15+ I agree with you, up to 11 I don’t and in between I think it depends on the kids skill levels.

ETpro's avatar

@theichibun & @worriedguy I think by carefully merging the Do and Don’t lists we could come up with a more powerful list as each covers some bases the other miss. Two GAs.

@polinsteve First I am going to agree with you on math at least, and on certain elements of science. Both these skills, at their present levels, developed over at least 4,500 years of humanity thinking, testing, and recording what works. To suggest you can close up a few elementary school age kids in a room for a few hours a day, and let them invent and become skilled in math is just silly. Being able to accurately add and subtract, sum a list of numbers with carrying and such comes only by practice. Same with division and multiplication. And while calculators do all these things admirably, the knowledge of how to do them is critical to moving into algebra, plane and solid geometry, trig, calculus, statistics and probability theory later on.

There are facts about science that are critical to thinking through and solving problems as well. These facts must be in the kids’ heads and ready for application before a group of kids are likely to be able to successfully brainstorm a MythBusters style challenge.

That said, @gorillapaws has a very valid point as well about the cookbook recipe approach to school science labs. I remember it well, and fun it wasn’t. And I happen to be a nerd who always had an innate love of chemistry, biology and physics. Once the kids are equipped with a new set of facts, what better way to drive them home and at the same time motivate the students than to provide them a challenge their new tools have just equipped them to solve.

@polinsteve Your comment about your daughter’s reading goes to highlight another problem in today’s education. Leave No Child Behind has been interpreted to mean you put the child with Downs syndrome in the same class with the profoundly gifted and the ordinary learner. Education doesn’t conform to a One-size-fits-all approach any better than shoe selection does.

My younger son also started school at 4½, but he had taught himself to read before he was 2. At 4½ he was reading books from the middle school library. Thankfully, we lived in Virginia Beach at the time, and they had a comprehensive gifted and talented education program from 1st through 12th grade. If he had been forced to read stuff like “See Jane run.” for grade after grade, I am sure his attention would have been anywhere but the classroom he was assigned to.

gorillapaws's avatar

@polinsteve, @ETpro Great points. I just wanted to clarify that I do think factual information is important. But the biggest problem I see with the scientific literacy of adult Americans is they don’t really understand what science truly is, and the process of how it works. People don’t understand that it can only deal with testable phenomena, or why controls are essential. Pseudo-science is as rampant as ever, and many otherwise smart people can’t seem to grasp the idea of the placebo effect.

People seem to think that science is dictated to the masses by weirdos in lab-coats, and it’s no wonder they come to conclude that evolution is a matter of faith between believing those scientists or their preacher. I think teaching students from an early age about the process of science, and why the scientific method is the best way of gaining knowledge about the natural world is absolutely critical.

ETpro's avatar

@gorillapaws Can’t argue with that.

mattbrowne's avatar

Teach children the pleasure of delayed gratification.

Motivate students by using real world examples.

Yetanotheruser's avatar

Pay teachers and don’t try to balance the budgets on the backs of teachers and students.

ETpro's avatar

@Yetanotheruser Amen to that. Republicans aren’t just trying to balance the budget in that way. THey are trying to find more money to transfer to the wealthiest of Americans because it’s a select group of them that now fund their party.

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