Sunday, November 1, 2009

Why do our top math & science students defect?

This week's Education Weekly reports on a new study suggesting that the problem isn't that America's K12 schools are producing fewer highly qualified math and science graduates. The problem, rather, lies with:

...the top high school and postsecondary students, as measured by ACT and SAT scores and college grade point averages, who choose other studies and occupations, a trend that appears to have begun in the 1990s, the authors conclude.
Lack of STEM (science, math, engineering, and technology) ability, the new study concludes, "is not what is driving many students away." The implication: K12 math and science education is not at fault.

But aptitude tests like the ACT and SAT may not be the best measure of how well prepared American-born college students are in comparison with their peers from other countries, a much higher proportion of whom don't defect from STEM. Perhaps one reason why American-born students do defect is that they are ill prepared to compete, as Allison reports on kitchentablemath:
The kids with natural math talent who are not utter prodigies DO NOT come from behind at a school like Harvard, MIT, Caltech in the math or sciences. They are completely outclassed by the Russians, Czechs, Estonians, Koreans, Japanese, Singaporeans, etc.
The watered-down Reform Math that also began in the 1990's only makes matters worse.

Besides poorly preparing its best math and science students--along with everyone else-- our K12 schools, thanks largely to Reform Math, are also turn many of them off to math and science. As one defector who eventually returned to STEM comments on the Education Week article:
As a teen, science and math were easy and not challenging, even higher level AP courses. Music and the arts encouraged creativity and offered tasks that continued to challenge me.
It's certainly tempting for certain people to believe, as the Education Week study proposes, that it's simply that "that top-tier students may regard non-STEM careers—in health care, business, and the law—as higher-paying, more prestigious, or more stable." But it may ultimately be their K12 experiences that pull them away from STEM.


Marcy said...

I have been looking for published commentary by university math faculty on the current state of incoming high school students. Do you have some?

Obi-Wandreas, The Funky Viking said...

Here's one.

Marcy said...

Thank you!

Katharine Beals said...

Thanks, Obi! I don't know of any other published commentary, but I do know a number of mathematicians that lament the math preparation of incoming students.

Alan said...

National math test scores continue to be disappointing. This poor trend persists in spite of new texts, standardized tests with attached implied threats, or laptops in the class. At some point, maybe we should admit that math, as it is taught currently and in the recent past, seems irrelevant to a large percentage of grade school kids.

Why blame a sixth grade student or teacher trapped by meaningless lessons? Teachers are frustrated. Students check out.

The missing element is reality. Instead of insisting that students learn another sixteen formulae, we need to involve them in tangible life projects. And the task must be interesting.

Project-oriented math engages kids. It is fun. They have a reason to learn the math they may have ignored in the standard lecture format of a class room.

Alan Cook

bky said...

Alan -- I know this is commercial spam so I should just ignore it, but it is a bunch of hooie. I just finished talking with my 10-year old son about a problem from Singapore Challenging Word Problems. He was very into the problem, especially his ability to set it up and solve it. It dealt with three bags, A, B, and C, and beads therein. Some got moved from one bag to another. Etc. How many where there? This is not real-world, but problems like this zero in (again and again) on the heart of the matter. Mathematics is not nor has it ever been nor will it ever be intrinsically about "real-world" problems, despite the fact that mathematics is very useful in solving real-world problems.

Cranberry said...

My children were not engaged by the "real world" problems in math. Been there, done that, not impressed.

Beth said...

This is an issue I see in my daughter's math curriculum at school. Here is my current thinking on it.

There are two sides to math.

One side is the "real-world" application; the use of math to model real-world problems. I am fine with the pizzas to represent fractions, the blocks, the manipulatives, the word problems. All these things can be useful.

But the other side to math is the abstract, logical system which goes beyond modeling the real world. This is also very important, and it is very poorly served by the math my daughter is taught in school.

(Caution: bragging ahead!)

I've started supplementing with Singapore Math, and we've done a lot of work with fractions. I've gotten my daughter used to the statement, "dividing by 2 is the same as multiplying by 1/2" (something she never learned at school, btw.)

The other day I thought I would introduce division by a fraction. I asked dd, "if dividing by 2 is the same as multiplying by 1/2, what happens if you divide by 1/4?" She thought for a moment, and came up with "it must be the same as multiplying by 4." I was impressed. She got it just by having an intuition about the pattern.

Notice there is no real-world equivalent here. It's all about logic and pattern recognition, which is just as important as the real-world stuff.

Obi-Wandreas, The Funky Viking said...

The primary problem with "real world" problems, is that in order for them to require only the math you are trying to teach in the lesson, you have to set up a problem so contrived that it ceases to bear any actual resemblance to the real world.

The other issue, of course, is that it requires a great deal of time and effort to set up a problem and story only to find that your students will refuse to donate any airborne intercourse.

It's great to show students that math has real applicability. For the most part, however, what they are doing simply builds the foundation for the stuff that's really useful. A coach doesn't show athletes how they could use a sit-up to help them in life. When the athlete does something that requires the use of their abs, however, they will be glad to have done them.