Sad state of math and science education

The latest results for math and science education in first-world nations such as the U.S., the major European nations, and Australia are not particularly encouraging. In the following table, the first two columns contain the latest results from the “Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study” (TIMSS) for Grade Four and Grade Eight, respectively [Institute2009], while the third column contains rankings of math performance among 15-year-olds in a separate study by the OECD [OECD2003]:

Grade Four TIMSS Rankings

  1. Hong Kong (607)
  2. Singapore (599)
  3. Chinese Taipei (576)
  4. Japan (568)
  5. Kazakhstan (549)
  6. Russian Federation (544)
  7. England (541)
  8. Latvia (537)
  9. Netherlands (535)
  10. Lithuania (530)
  11. United States (529)
  12. Germany (525)
  13. Denmark (523)
  14. Australia (516)
  15. Hungary (510)
  16. Italy (507)
  17. Austria (505)
  18. Sweden (503)
  19. Slovenia (502)
  20. Armenia 9500)
  21. Slovak Republic (496)
  22. Scotland (494)
  23. New Zealand (492)
  24. Czech Republic (486)
  25. Norway (473)
  26. Ukraine (469)
  27. Georgia (438)
  28. Iran (402)
  29. Algeria (378)
  30. Colombia (355)

Grade Eight TIMSS Rankings

  1. Chinese Taipei (598)
  2. Republic of Korea (597)
  3. Singapore (593)
  4. Hong Kong (572)
  5. Japan (570)
  6. Hungary (517)
  7. England (513)
  8. Russian Federation (512)
  9. United States (508)
  10. Lithuania (506)
  11. Czech Republic (504)
  12. Slovenia (501)
  13. Armenia (499)
  14. Australia (496)
  15. Sweden (491)
  16. Malta (488)
  17. Scotland (487)
  18. Serbia (486)
  19. Italy (480)
  20. Malaysia (474)
  21. Norway (469)
  22. Cyprus (465)
  23. Bulgaria (464)
  24. Israel (463)
  25. Ukraine (462)
  26. Romania (461)
  27. Bosnia/Herzegovina (456)
  28. Lebanon (449)
  29. Thailand (441)
  30. Turkey (432)

15-Year-Olds OECD Math Rankings

  1. Hong Kong
  2. Finland
  3. South Korea
  4. Netherlands
  5. Liechtenstein
  6. Japan
  7. Canada
  8. Belgium
  9. Macao
  10. Switzerland
  11. Australia
  12. New Zealand
  13. Czech Republic
  14. Iceland
  15. Denmark
  16. France
  17. Sweden
  18. Austria
  19. Germany
  20. Ireland
  21. Slovak Republic
  22. Norway
  23. Luxembourg
  24. Poland
  25. Hungary
  26. Spain
  27. Latvia
  28. United States
  29. Russian Federation
  30. Portugal

(Note: Not all nations participate in these studies, so, for instance, Canada ranks seventh in the third table, but did not participate in and thus does not appear in first two tables.)

In comparing the above data, it is interesting to note that while first-world nations do fairly well among 15-year-old students, the Asian “tigers,” namely Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Singapore and Korea, dominate the top positions for fourth and eighth graders. This seems to indicate that the Asian countries are on the rise, and that future rankings will show them superior even among 15-year-olds.

U.S. performance is mediocre among fourth and eighth grade students, ranking below the Asian tigers, but is downright dismal among 15-year-olds. This by itself is not a reason to declare disaster. What is a disaster is that this disappointing performance is delivered by a nation whose economy, arguably more than another single nation, is dependent on a steady stream of top math- and science-educated workers. Perhaps even more worrisome for the U.S. is the fact that in spite of a greatly increased focus on education, especially K-12 education, for at least the past 10-15 years, improvement has only been modest. In fact, since 1995, U.S. grade four scores on the TIMSS study have increased only 11 points, as opposed to 57 points for England, 50 points for Hong Kong, and 40 points for Slovenia. Similarly, at grade eight, the U.S. improvement of 16 points ranks well behind Colombia (47 points) and Lithuania (34 points) [Institute2009]. Other U.S. studies have come to a similar conclusion. Average fourth-grade math scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress were flat between 2009 and 2008, and average eighth-grade math scores increased only two points. Another fact of major significance is that the scoring gaps between white students and Hispanic and African-American students have not changed much in recent years [Tomsho2009].

The “threat” of the Asian tigers is real. China, for example, has made remarkable progress in scientific research. In 1998, China’s research output was 20,000 articles per year. In 2006, it reached 83,000, overtaking Japan, Germany and the U.K. Last year it reached 120,000 articles, second only to the U.S. at 350,000, and is on track to surpass the U.S. by 2020 [Adams2010]. Obviously, quantity is not the same as quality, and some have expressed concern that only a fraction of these papers truly contain top-tier results. But given that China is home to nearly 25% of the world’s population, it is only a question of when, rather than if, China will become the world’s most prolific producer of scientific knowledge [Adams2010]. In a similar vein, China graduates more engineers than the U.S., and thus is well poised to become the world’s high-tech manufacturing center for the 21st century [Friedman2007, pg. 257].

India has made similar strides, although not quite as dramatic as China. In his book The World Is Flat, Thomas Friedman documents that in the same way that China is well-poised to be a leader of manufacturing, India is similarly well poised to become a dominant center for high-tech services. Already India has numerous centers for accounting (done on behalf of first-world clients) and even medical “tourism.” As Friedman notes, both of these two nations are not racing the first world to the bottom or the middle of the economic pyramid; instead they are racing to the top [Friedman2007, pg. 265].

Also, while the many Asian scientists and engineers now laboring in first-world nations are a great blessing to the West, now that China and India, in particular, are making great strides forward economically, some of those same scientists and engineers are now being lured back to their home countries [LaFraniere2010]. Thus, first-world nations cannot rely exclusively on imported talent.

So how serious are these problems? What should first-world nations do?

This week U.S. President Barack Obama has announced a $250 million program to improve math and science education [Anderson2010]. Together with matching funding from various high-tech business such as Intel, and several universities and foundations, the program seeks to prepare more than 10,000 new well-qualified math and science school teachers over the next five years, and to upgrade the training for an additional 100,000. As Obama declared, “Passionate educators with deep content expertise can make all the difference, enabling hands-on learning that truly engages students — including girls and underrepresented minorities — and preparing them to tackle the ‘grand challenges’ of the 21st century such as increasing energy independence, improving people’s health, protecting the environment and strengthening national security.” [Anderson2010].

In a related development, several U.S. Congressmen have introduced a bill that proposes making it easier for students who have received advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics from U.S. universities to obtain green card employment visas, rather than lingering in H-1B “visa limbo” [McGee2009]. Similar initiatives are advancing in some other first-world nations.

Commendable as these developments are, we still believe that fundamental structural changes must be made not only in the U.S. but throughout the E.U. and the Commonwealth as well. To begin with, a good part of the reason that the Asian “tiger” countries do so well is that the students simply spend more time in school and more time doing homework. Euclid is said to have replied to King Ptolemy’s request for an easier way of learning mathematics that “there is no royal road to geometry.” The same could be said of numerous topics of modern mathematics and science. Harold Stevenson of the University of Michigan, after spending several years researching differences between U.S. schools and those in China, Japan and Taiwan, found that Asian pupils spend almost 50% more time per week in class, and their school year is about one-third longer (there is no such thing as a summer vacation). In addition, many Asian students enroll in additional private tutoring [Eskildson2010].

Another significant difficulty is the persistence of a significant anti-science mentality, which is particularly stark in the U.S., but is growing in the U.K., Europe and the English-speaking commonwealth as well. In a 2004 poll, 45 percent of Americans agreed that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.” [Gallup2004]. In a 2005 poll, 42 percent of Americans agreed that “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.” [Pew2005]. In a similar 2006 poll in Great Britain, 22% selected “God created human kind pretty much in his/her present form at one time within the last 10,000 years” among four listed survey options [BBC2006]. These statistics are stupefying in an era where mutated diseases, such as the recent antibiotic-resistant Tuberculosis and drug-resistant HIV strains, are everyday news and threaten millions of people, and where petroleum engineers routinely drill through fossil layers laid down many millions of years ago. Such statistics indicate a fundamental hostility to the entire enterprise of scientific research, and are exhibited in reluctance to increase public funding for math and science education. Until this hostility is adequately dealt with, there is not much prospect for significantly improved educational performance in major first-world nations.


  1. [Adams2010] Jonathan Adams, “Get Ready for China’s Domination of Science,” New Scientist, 06 Jan 2010, available at
    Online article.

  2. [Anderson2010] Nick Anderson, “White House Announces $250M Effort for Science and Math Teachers,” Washington Post, 6 Jan 2010, available at
    Online article.

  3. [BBC2006] BBC, “Britons Unconvinced on Evolution,” BBC World News, 26 Jan 2006, available at
    Online article.

  4. [Eskildson2010] Loyd Eskildson, “Asian Students Spend 50% More Time in Class, School Year 1/3 Longer,” 6 Jan 2010, available at
    Online article.

  5. [Friedman2007] Thomas L. Friedman, The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century, Picador, New York, 2007.
  6. [Gallup2004] Gallup Poll, 2004, available at
    Online article.

  7. [Institute2009] Institute for Education Sciences, “Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study”, U.S. Department of Education, 2007 study updated with a 2009 overview, available at
    Online article.

  8. [LaFraniere2010] Sharon LaFraniere, “Fighting Trend, China Is Luring Scientists Home,” New York Times, 6 Jan 2010, available at
    Online article.

  9. [McGee2009] Marianne Kolbasuk McGee, “Work Visas Back On Congressional Agenda,” Government Information Week, 16 Dec 2009, available at
    Online article.

  10. [OEDC2003] Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), “International Comparison of Math, Reading and Science Skills Among 15-Year-Olds,” 2003, available at
    Online article.

  11. [Pew2005] Pew Forum survey, 2005, available at
    Online article.

  12. [Tomsho2009] Robert Tomsho, “U. S. Math Scores Hit a Wall: National Test Shows No Gains for Fourth-Graders, Slight Rise for Eighth-Graders,” Wall Street Journal, 15 Oct, 2009, pg. A3, available at:
    Online article.

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