I'm sure you've heard that Americans stink at math. In fact, American children are terrible at math. Our public schools are failures. American teachers are overworked, teacher unions are corrupt, and math curricula are dumbed down. Or so we are told. But, is this actually true? Are American students terrible at math?

The answer is yes - and no.

The quick answer is that education in the United States varies wildly from state to state and district to district. Therefore, student abilities in math also vary wildly.* The average U.S. test scores in math are mediocre. However, dig a little deeper, and you’ll see huge variations. For example, a close look at Massachusetts math scores on two international tests, the Programme for International Student Assessment, 2015 (PISA) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, 2011 (TIMMS), demonstrate the problem with the assertion that “Americans stink at math”.

While the average international math scores in the U.S. are low (470 on the PISA and 509 on TIMMS), Massachusetts fares much better (500 on PISA and 561 on TIMMS). According to TIMMS data, the average Massachusetts student trails only South Korea, Singapore, Chinese Taipei and Hong Kong. Students in middle- and upper-income communities fare even better. Disaggregated by income, districts in communities with significant economic resources averaged 542 on PISA and 589 on TIMMS, landing them among the top performers internationally. (Table below).

How does this relate to parenting for equity?

The idea that all American children are awful at math has caused a universal mathmania. Because so many believe that all children are failing in math, supplemental educational math programs have emerged. These programs cost thousands of dollars a year and tend to be only accessible to families with high incomes. They favor a traditional (and outdated – but that’s a different post) approach to teaching mathematics. However, according to international tests of PISA and TIMMS, the average student in these communities is already functioning alongside those in the world’s highest scoring countries.

Why do these students need extra mathematics at all? Some American students attend schools which are underfunded, understaffed and ill equipped to provide a stellar education in math. What impact does extra support for high achieving students have on children who are legitimately behind in mathematics ?

Since I am thinking about my role in society and shifting my focus to supporting all children and not just my children, I wonder:

Do supplemental math programs actually benefit students who are already succeeding in math?

Is it possible that this intense pressure on math can actually cause harm?

Is it ethical to provide intensive resources to my children, who don’t need them, when so many other children do?

How might my parenting decisions to provide extra math for my children impact other families, children and our collective future?

If my parenting decisions create inequities, what is my responsibility towards all children (in my community, my state, my nation)? What should I do – what would radical mom-ness (that is, parenting for all children) suggest I do?

A final caveat - as Mark Twain supposedly quipped, "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics". This is one way of viewing this data - there are others and there are nuances not captured. But I argue that thinking about math in relation to equity and opening perspectives on this issue... is really important.

* To get a sense of just how much variation exists among schools, read this NPR article on residential segregation and inequality. The photographs alone tell a compelling story.

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