Harvard Study Finds U.S. Losing Race to Produce Advanced Math Students

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Publication date: 
11 February 2011
Number: 
16

Casting doubts on  the United States’ ability to maintain its global edge in scientific  innovation, a new study from three prominent education researchers finds that  the U.S. lags far behind other nations in producing high school students who  are highly accomplished in math. Comparing the percentage of students who  achieve advanced scores on a standardized math test in 56 industrialized  nations, the study found that the U.S. was significantly outperformed by 30 of  the 56.

U. S. Math  Performance in Global Perspective: How well does each state do at producing  high-achieving students? was produced by Eric A. Hanushek, Paul E.  Peterson, and Ludger Woessmann under the auspices of the journal Education  Next and Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, part of the  Harvard Kennedy School’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government. The  researchers drew on data culled from the 2005 and 2006 administrations of the  National Assessment of Education Progress test and the Program for  International Student Assessment test respectively, examining a representative  sample of the high school graduating class of 2009 in each of the 56 countries.  The study paints a picture of an American educational system that fails to  produce high achievers in math at a rate necessary to compete on the  international level.

“We give special  attention to math performance because math appears to be the subject in which  accomplishment in secondary school is particularly significant for both an  individual’s and a country’s economic well-being,” the study’s authors note. “Existing  research, though not conclusive, indicates that math skills better predict  future earnings and other economic outcomes than other skills learned in high  school.”

In the United  States, roughly 6 percent of students earned advanced scores, as compared with  first place Taiwan, where 28 percent of students are advanced in math. The  authors point out that “[i]t is not only Taiwan that did much, much better than  the U.S. At least 20 percent of students in Hong Kong, Korea, and Finland were  highly accomplished, and 12 other countries had at least twice the percentage  of highly accomplished students as the U.S.”

Importantly, the  study considers explanations often cited to mitigate the appearance of the  United States’ underachievement, such as low performance by recent immigrant  populations or socioeconomically disadvantaged minorities that could drag down  averages. The study’s authors acknowledge that there is a scarcity of high  achievers in STEM fields from disadvantaged minorities. However, they also find  that even in subsets of the American population with historic advantages - white  students and students with at least one parent who graduated college - the  percentage of advanced students trails the overall percentage of  advanced students in other nations.

“Only 8 percent  of white students in the U.S. Class of 2009 scored at the advanced level, a  percentage that was less than the share of advanced students in 24 other  countries regardless of their ethnic background,” the study finds. It goes on  to reveal that “the percentage of students in the Class of 2009 whose parent  had graduated from college and who are performing at the advanced level is just  10.3 percent of the total. Students in 16 countries, no matter their parents’  educational attainment, out-rank this more-advantaged segment of the U.S.  population.”

Moreover, though  there is significant variation from state to state, even the highest performing  state, Massachusetts, has only 11 percent advanced students, which ranks it  behind 14 of the surveyed nations. Furthermore, even when the study examines a  more privileged set of Massachusetts students, those with a college-educated  parent, the percentage of advanced students still trails the percentage of all students (regardless of advantage) who achieved an advanced level in Taiwan,  Hong Kong, Korea, Finland, Switzerland, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

The study’s  authors question whether the 2002 Elementary and Secondary Education Act  Reauthorization known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB), with its focus  particularly on helping low achieving students gain a basic minimum  proficiency, hindered the American educational system’s ability to nurture high  achievers. They find, however, that since enactment of NCLB, there has been a  rise in the percentages of students both who achieve basic proficiency and in  those who achieve high proficiency. Thus they conclude that “the incapacity of  American schools to bring students up to the highest level of accomplishment in  mathematics is much more deep-seated than anything induced by recent federal  legislation.”

In their closing  discussion, the authors posit that, though there are certainly many factors  that may affect the underperformance of American students, this study’s  findings indicate structural flaws in the American school system that must be  addressed for the U.S. to continue to compete globally. They write: “That even  relatively advantaged groups in American society—white students and those with  a parent who has a college education—do not generate a high percentage of  students who achieve at the advanced level in math suggests, we submit, that  schools are failing to teach students effectively.”

The authors do  not offer specific policy recommendations, but they caution that the solution  is not simply more money. The United States already ranks near the top in per  student expenditures on education, and in a time when there are strong  pressures to trim federal spending, the authors concede that it is likely not  feasible to significantly increase the K-12 education budget. They close the  report by quoting Nobel Laureate Sir Ernest Rutherford, who said: “Gentlemen,  we have run out of money. It is time to start thinking.”