Posted by: courtneyobrien | October 14, 2008

“Math Skills suffer in the US, Study finds”

On Friday, The New York Times published an article written by Sara Rimmer entitled, “Math Skills suffer in the US, Study finds.” ( .  Her article is based on the “Cross-cultural Analysis of Students with Exceptional Talent in Mathematical Problem Solving” study by Titu Andreescu, Joseph A. Gallian, Jonathan M. Kane, and Janet E. Mertz (

Rimmer writes, “The United States is failing to develop the math skills of both girls and boys, especially among those who could excel at the highest levels, a new study asserts, and girls who do succeed in the field are almost all immigrants or the daughters of immigrants from countries where mathematics is more highly valued.”

While many studies have analyzed gender and ethic differences of math students based on the SAT and other standardized tests, this study looks at the results of the International Math Olympiad and the Putnam Competition, which Prof. Kate urged us to sign up for last week.

My other math class had a lengthy discussion about the IMO on Friday. Dr. Mertz and her colleagues believe these tests measure for the “dazzling creativity, insight and reasoning skills required to solve math problems at the highest levels.” However, my professor argued that a high score on the IMO was not necessarily an indicator of what it takes to be a mathematician.  Instead, he claimed, it merely tests a student’s ability to be “clever” in the amount of time provided.

Regardless of what the IMO and the Putnam test, the study found that there is a clear self-selection bias among the participants in these competitions. “Many students from the United States in these competitions are immigrants or children of immigrants from countries where education in mathematics is prized and mathematical talent is thought to be widely distributed and able to be cultivated through hard work and persistence.”

Whether motivated by curiosity, excitement, pride, or parental pressure, the children of immigrants are more likely to choose to compete than children from families who have lived in the US for several generations. While “American” students may possess the skills necessary to succeed at these competitions, they choose not to compete for some reason or another.  The problem, therefore, is not so much a deficiency in the development of math skills in the US, but a deficiency in the development of confidence and pride in the competitive math arena.

“There is something about the culture in American society today which doesn’t really seem to encourage men or women in mathematics,” said Michael Sipser, the head of M.I.T.’s math department. “Sports achievement gets lots of coverage in the media. Academic achievement gets almost none.”

Dr. Mertz agrees, “Kids in high school, where social interactions are really important, think, ‘If I’m not an Asian or a nerd, I’d better not be on the math team.’ Kids are self selecting. For social reasons they’re not even trying.”

Dr. Feng beleives that parents in China view math as parents in the United States view baseball, hockey and soccer. “Here everybody plays baseball,” Dr. Feng said. “Everybody throws a few balls, regardless of whether you’re good at it, or not. If you don’t play well, it’s O.K. Everybody gives you a few claps. But people don’t treat math that way.”



  1. Hi, I’m not in the course, but have been lurking on this blog for a while.

    I found this article thought provoking. What do you, the students of Math 152, think? Does the article ring true to your experience?

  2. One encouraging trend is the growing popularity of Math Circles ( Dr. Titu Andreescu, one of the authors of this study founded the Metroplex Math Circle in Dallas, TX (

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