Countries from around the world send a team of six each year, to compete in a grueling competition – and no, we’re not talking about soccer. It’s called the International Math Olympiad (IMO), the world’s most prestigious competition.
In 2016, a team of American “mathletes” won the IMO for the second time running, besting teams from historically dominant countries such as China, South Korea and Japan. They placed fourth in 2017.
Nevertheless, released data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the Pew Research Center indicate the mathematics skills of the US workforce and students continue to rank closer to the middle than the top, behind many advanced industrial countries.
In the past decades, millions of commonly skilled, exceptionally paid workers were laid off. Americans aspiring to high-skilled, high-paying technical careers such as engineering will meet the same fate unless America is able to better prepare them to compete for the jobs the new global economy requires.
Worse yet, US is losing ground to countries in Europe and Asia whose schools not only surpass America’s but are steadily improving. Faced with this reality, one can chat up denials, or draw insights.
The record speaks of a host of best practices.
Beginning in 1976, China has transformed its education system, led by Shanghai. Shanghai is an example in universal enrollment in the words of the OECD, and has been the leader in literacy, science and math achievements since the 1990s.
Singapore, a nation with one of the most recognized educational systems, achieved excellence after three long and distinct education reforms. Singaporean students are coached toward mastery, not just learning for a test, with an engrained focus on solving unstructured problems in unfamiliar ways.
And when it comes to literacy and low drop-out rates, Japan is a model (99 percent and 0.2 percent, respectively) owing to an intense focus on reading and math beginning at age 6. Japan’s curriculum is rigorous and dense, with unique emphasis on personal aptitude and world cultures.
And who trains their teachers well, and pays them even better, and gives their young a 15-minute outdoors break every hour in a five-hour school day?
The Finns. Finland consistently commands high Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey scores and boasts the lowest gap between the weakest and strongest students worldwide.
America’s standing as an economic power is threatened by cultures above and below her on the achievement scale. Emergent nations are consolidating their gains and striving to gain more. Meanwhile, according to the OECD, less established countries like Brazil, Chile and Peru have achieved a sizeable upsurge, setting out from meager showings. If the status quo remains, nations that lag behind the US will soon overtake it.
There’s more to math schooling than mastering numbers. Or acing a few contests. Or swapping pad and pencil for shiny, high-priced, up-to-the-minute knickknacks mandated by a committee whose members were culled through an application process lacking “Math Career,” and “Math Background” boxes.
Recent OECD findings revealed frequent use of computers in schools is likely to be associated with lower math aptitude scores. An OECD education director even conceded school technology has raised “too many false hopes.”
The US can choose to act or slip further and further behind.
"Life without a dream is not but a bird with broken wings," someone once said.
Excuse me while I picture – and this, I do. Not a play or a picture, but the impact of this nation lauding her scholastic superstars the way she lauds their athletic counterparts.
The US has turned corners before, as attested by the compulsory school movement of the early 20th century, and the postwar college-access expansion.
She’s the mariner who invented the Morse code, and helped turn two world-wars around. And the nation who’ll turn this corner, too.
(The author is a former teacher based in Los Angeles.)