You only have to talk to parents, especially those foreign-born, to get a sense of how unhappy they are with math education in their kids’ schools, whether public or private. They scratch their heads over way too simple homework that takes fifteen minutes to complete, over way too basic concepts their kids are learning, and over dubious “spoon feeding” problem-solving methodologies they are taught, as if to “safeguard” their brains from a possible mental overload.
You cannot turn on TV without hearing about the US losing its coveted place as a world’s economic superpower due to under-investment in math and sciences. Almost two-thirds of professions in this country in the 21st century will require proficiency (not just familiarity) with algebra, geometry, statistics and data analysis. McKinsey, one of the most respected international consulting firms, predicts a shortage of about two million workers in the US whose job it is to to analyze, interpret and make sense of the data generated in their companies’ businesses. Studies have shown high correlation of proficiency in math (as compared to any other subject) to the economic well being of both individuals and nations.
Yet, the math picture in this country is bleak: US kids consistently score at the bottom of other developed nations on international math tests, “light-years” behind their peers from China, Korea, Taiwan, Finland, Singapore and many other countries. In the last international test, 20% of Finnish students tested at the advanced level of math, compared to only 8% of US students (that metric was almost 30% for Taiwanese students). Thirty countries, including many less developed countries like Lithuania, Slovenia and Poland, scored ahead of the US.
There’s no shortage of theories about the root causes of US underperformance. Stanislas Dehaene in his book “The Number Sense” claims that English speakers are at a disadvantage to Mandarin speakers because it takes less time to pronounce numbers in Mandarin than in English (you can count quicker to ten in Mandarin), and therefore, to memorize the numbers and perform operations with them. New York Times best selling author Malcolm Gladwell points to the punishing work ethic of the Chinese people developed over generations of complex and demanding work in rice paddies farming as a contributor to the success of Asian students in math. In contrast, the lax work ethic in the US is often brought up. The US education system and low teacher pay rates get their share of blame. Then there’s media and popular culture, with their anti-intellectual bias…video games, iPhones and other technology distractors of the modern world…. “No Child Left Behind” law and shifting of the focus from the best and brightest to the low performing kids…recession and lack of funding…and the list goes on and on.
Which one of the prevailing theories is correct? It is hard to say. Many of them probably have a small dose of truth. Our firm belief is that, fundamentally, there is nothing at all inherent in the abilities of the US kids to prevent them from performing at the highest levels in math. The Russian math genius Gregori Perelman, who recently won the prestigious Millennium prize for solving a 100-year old problem, along with the overall Russian (or Soviet) historical track record of outstanding accomplishments in the field of mathematics, cast some doubt the “English language” theory. For example, number “4” in Russian has 3 syllables; counting to ten is quicker in English.
It would seem that the under-achievement of American kids is caused mainly by three factors: what they learn, how they learn it, and for how long. The “what” is fairly simple: there is no question the bar is set too low in the typical US math curriculum. Kids are not challenged anywhere close to their average mental capacity and, as a result, do not develop as fast at their counterparts in other countries. The “how” has to do with effectiveness of the process of teaching: who is teaching, how talented, smart, competent, passionate, engaging and imaginative they are; and with things like teacher/student ratio, the effective use of classroom time, use of technology, etc. The “how long” echoes the Gladwell’s hypothesis on work ethic – how much time do our kids spend diligently learning math? In most cases, the answer is clear: “not enough”.
Addressing these three factors is the mission of the Squared School. We do not deal in “secret formulas” or “miracle cures”. Our approach is quite pragmatic. We design a top-notch, challenging curriculum, with building blocks of knowledge logically laid out, both in terms of sequencing and interconnection. We teach it in a way that engages and excites the kids. And we insist on high standards for our students: in-class participation and rigorous homework, equating to investment of time and effort. In our humble opinion, this is the “not-so-secret formula” that will ultimately make American kids reach the same, or maybe even higher heights, than their counterparts in Taiwan and Korea.