Friday, October 17, 2008

Declining Math Skills in the US

Last week, I was disappointed as I read in the New York Times that the number of children in the United States who are excelling in mathematics is in decline. It seems that American culture does not highly value talent in math and as a result, many students, and especially girls, are not motivated to achieve in this discipline.

My own 13 year old daughter, Becky, decided to drop out of the chess club this year, after having competed nationally and internationally since she was in the first grade. “It is just not cool, Mom.” But I am continuing to insist on participation in after school math enrichment through the local Kumon branch. And she is dutifully rising early every morning to get to her 7:15 geometry class at the high school. Luckily, I still have some influence!

As a recruiter for positions requiring quantitative skills, I am very aware of the acute shortage of analytical talent here in the United States. Off shoring these jobs resulted because of the inability to satisfy all the demand (and I did not see any negative impact to salaries here as a result). The demand continues to grow and it sounds like the supply will increasingly come from foreign sources.

Here’s the link to the article: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/10/education/10math.html?_r=1&scp=4&sq=mathematics&st=cse&oref=slogin

I would love to hear about your experiences – please share them by posting to my blog.

Linda Burtch
Burtch Works
Email: lburtch@burtchworks.com
Don’t Forget to Connect to me on LinkedIn and become a Facebook fan!

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

>> My own 13 year old daughter, Becky, decided to drop out of the chess club this year, after having competed nationally and internationally since she was in the first grade. <<

I am looking up "Burtch" on the U.S. Chess Federation's website,
http://www.uschess.org/msa/MbrLst.php,
and I am not finding any rating for your daughter. Unless she competed under a different last name, of course...
--- Paul

Bellcurve said...

I work for a large bank in the area of statistical modeling and analytics and have been working in statistics for several years. Were I to have children, I would encourage them to pursue other areas of interest. Mathematics/statistics can be difficult to understand and, once you enter the job market, there isn't much of a career path compared to other careers. Typically, someone without any mathematical aptitude will manage those who do. Marketing staff, as an example, are promoted much more rapidly than the statisticians who support them. I suspect engineering is the same: an MBA will run the show. Do you see many job openings for physicists or pure mathemeticians outside low paying university jobs? Why put a child through the rigors of a difficult curriculum when the payoff isn't that great? I am often solicited by recruiters who want to offer me an "opportunity" -- usually just the same job with a different company. In my experience, I have seen very few of my coworkers achieve the kind of success their intelligence would seem to demand and you end up trying to explain technical concepts to, well, the intellectually challenged 3 pay grades up. And one last thing, look at the resumes of those in the top tier of any company - bet you won't find one math person there (mostly law or business).

Steve Cole said...

I read the same article and it rings true to me. I spent two years away from business life teaching high school math so I have a little first-hand experience. A full discussion would fill many scholarly journals but I’ll hit the high points from my point of view:

1. The curriculum isn’t interesting – in the US, math is still largely taught as theory. I compared what I taught with my nephew’s courses in England; he was solving interesting, everyday problems with math while my kids were forced to solve quadratic equations through factoring. There are teachers who tackle this problem themselves in their own classrooms through exceptional teaching and there are innovative curricula but together they reach a minute fraction of students

2. We don’t integrate technology – students and schools have computers but they're not part of teaching or learning in most classrooms

3. It’s all about scores and grades – for schools, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) has emphasized teaching-to-the-test and for kids it’s all about gaming the system to get a good grade. We’ve lost the essential essence of teaching for real understanding of the material.

4. Our kids are spoiled – math is unforgiving in the sense that it’s the one subject that (in K-12) your answer is either correct or it’s not. Kids gravitate to other subjects because they (and their helicopter parents) can negotiate for grades. In math, there’s been an explosion of partial credit grading and pressure to lower standards so that our children can “feel good about themselves”.

We’re struggling as a nation on this issue and, you’re right, it’s about national competitiveness. Let’s start by scrapping NCLB and giving the school districts and teachers the latitude to make this subject interesting again.

Steve

Linda Burtch said...

Yes, I use my maiden name at the office. I got married 12 years into my career with Smith Hanley, and I did not want any "brand identity" confusion!
Becky still has her USCF membership and her rating was somewhere around 1100 when she quit. I am trying to convince her to go to the upcoming tournament next weekend that kicks off the season. I am not getting very far.

Jeanette Shutay said...

Hi Linda,

Unfortunately it is very difficult to get a 13 year-old to understand the significance of having superior math skills later in life. I have to say that being in the quantitative field has given me more advantages than pretty much anyone I know outside of the field. I think the best thing you should do is to keep encouraging her and provide her with as many examples as possible regarding the benefits of being "good at math". Ask her if it is "cool" to be dependent on someone else later in life. Instill in her that when she is older (regardless of whether or not she is married), she will be in very high demand and she will be in control of her own life and NEVER have to worry about being unemployed or depending on a man (or the government).

My master's degree is in Developmental Psychology, so I have a solid foundation in adolescent development as well as research and statistics. It may not show today, but believe me, your words and actions will make a positive difference.

One thing that you might want to try is to ask her what her passion in life is. What does she want to do with her life? Then, directly link how important quantitative skills are with regard to developing that passion into a reality.

Good luck and stay on it!

Sincerely,

Jeanette Shutay

Chris Futia said...

This story hits home for me in two different ways. First of all, there is my husband, who has a double major in math and econ from Yale, a Master's in Math from Berkeley, and a PhD in Mathematical Economics from Berkeley. C. tried to start a new career this year -- a labor of love -- by getting a teaching certificate for secondary math (which is -- supposedly -- a shortage area). He applied to dozens of schools in the city of Chicago and the suburbs, and did not receive a single interview. Of course, he is 60 (?!) and by union rules he must be paid around $8,000 more than a fresh BA, even with no teaching experience. Even the schools that pride themselves on having a high percentage of teachers with advanced degrees weren't interested. Beyond the potential age discrimination, we have a very real crisis in our schools due to the demands of NCLB and its gross underfunding by the legislators who made it law. The schools simply cannot afford gifted teachers any longer; moveover, who needs a gifted math teacher when you're teaching to a standardized test anyway?

The second thing this bring to mind is what my husband did after the teaching career did not materialize. He looked high and low for a senior analyst-type position within the financial markets, which is his forte. He found a few entry-level jobs, but after having some conversations, learned that all of the upper-level jobs had been outsourced to India.

We have 3 children adopted from India and India has been my second home for 35+ years. I do not in any way oppose offshoring. However, when analytics offshoring squashes opportunities here at home, not just today but potentially permanently, we are greatly at risk of losing most of our rising analytic talent to other fields.

Christine Futia

Anonymous said...

My own experience as a parent tells me that part of the problem lies in the quest for the best grades instead of the best education. My son started this fall at Georgia Tech as a computer science major. He went to a great public high school where his AP calculus courses enabled him to start in adavnced levels at Ga Tech. When I talked to him about why more students at his high scholl didn't avail themsleves of the great math teachers and courses he had an immdediate response. First, many of the smart kids take only the required the math, as advanced math classes increase the risk of lower GPA. Their parents often coach them in this perspective. Second, parents dont seem to think it is important to impress upon kids that hard work is required to master math.

--Scott R.

Anonymous said...

I can't agree with the decline in skills more. I find that the math skills in general have a "trickle" effect in the workplace. Much of my time is spent showing others how to calculate discounts and other simple math concepts. This of course takes time away from the more analytical needs of the business such as econometric modeling, etc. Additionally, I hear many senior managers reluctant to use analytics for solutions because the "masses" don't understand it.

Xin said...

I think there are many factors contributing to this: the bad job market is the main thing. People have lost interest in science and technology. I can see this trend during my trips to the book stores. The "Science" or "Engineering" sections are getting smaller and smaller. Within the section, I see higher and higher percentages of "XYZ for Dummies" and "Idiots Guide to XYZ" types of books. You get the idea. :)

Xin

Yvonne said...

As an immigrant from China, I see the math defficiency in US is a symptom of a bigger problem - lack of interest in science and education over all. In America, the success is largely measured by money and power (if one is in Washington), not by intellectual prowess. Education seems to be viewed as a way to riches, rather than bettering oneself. Scientists are portrayed as "mad" in movies and TV shows, while lawyers and business men are glorified. US has relied on the foreign students to fill the needs for scientists and enginners in the past, but with this administration's immigration and visa policies, this has become much harder, and we are getting fewer international students in these fields and the ones do come and receive the education are now returning to their home countries in increasing proportions. The shortage will be felt even more acutely in the coming decade, I think.

Linda Burtch said...

Hi Linda - This is a very true statement. Even Senator Obama was talking about this in one of his debates. That is why it is so hard to fill analytics positions - I have even heard people talk to me in interviews "Does this position involve MATH skills".

People don't understand how important it is to know even simple things like Weighted Average, Percentage and think that these are very complex math problems.

I have been a TA for high school Math while at grad school and the level of Math in the USA is low. The level in India and China is so high that it will be very hard for Americans to keep up. (This is not just my personal statement, I have read this in several magazines, newspapers and also experienced first hand).

Let me know if you have questions...

Amit

Linda Burtch said...

Wow, Bellcurve, thanks for contributing a very interesting perspective. I do know more than a couple quant people who have made some money in business. Like Magid Abraham, PhD from MIT, John Little student, founded his second company, called comScore. Then, there is a Princeton computer science/math guy who left a quant job on Wall Street nearly 15 years ago to found an internet retailer. His name is Jeff Bezos and his company is Amazon. I know this because he turned down an offer through us to do this!

But it is important to do what you love, and find an environment that suits you. Its not all about the money.

chris cheung said...

Being a ‘geek’ is and has never part of any popular culture in the U.S. Have you seen Madonna or Britney doing math? I think not.

Telling your kids that math will be good for your career (blah blah blah!) is not going to work. How many times have my mom told me not to do you-know-what and I ended up doing more of you-know-what or vice versa? We had our rebellious time. Why do you expect your kids to be different?

The key is to repackage and redefine ‘geekism’ and sell it to your kids. It is cool to go to FaceBook, do text messaging, go to the mall, speak a foreign language, travel overseas, etc etc, right? Unless there is a big real shift in our culture, I cannot see how science or math by itself can be perceived to be cool.

I think the best and quickest way to change American kids’ mentality is to send them overseas for an education. Send them to China, India or the United Kingdom. When they come back, not only they have all the exciting stories to tell about their host countries, but also your kids will be the coolest kid in the block and hopefully straight A in math. If it is not feasible, find a good university that has classes or programs conducted overseas. You kids may be away from home for a little while. Ironically, they may be closer to you when they return.

Linda Burtch said...

Thanks for your comments, Chris. I think that your idea to have kids spend time overseas for their education is very interesting. With everything becoming global, our young people need more exposure to other learning methods and cultures. Funny, the United States used to be the magnet for people seeking the best that education had to offer.

Anonymous said...

Your blog keeps getting better and better! Your older articles are not as good as newer ones you have a lot more creativity and originality now keep it up!