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Is the U.S. Lagging Behind the World in Math and Science?

on August 17, 2020

During the Cold War, there was much talk in the U.S. about improving funding for math and science programs to compete with the Soviets. The Cold War has been over for decades, and one may wonder what has happened to the intense competition once over math and science achievement. Perhaps the gap has closed somewhat?

Unfortunately, the U.S. still lags behind many other industrialized nations in math and science proficiency among young people. The lack of an arms race should not cause the U.S. to be complacent over this fact, since advanced in technology and increasingly complex problems, from pandemics caused by novel viruses to environmental catastrophes, call for improved training in STEM subjects, or Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics. 

According to the Pew Research data from 2015, students in the United States are right around the middle in the areas of math and science and fall behind many other industrialized countries.

These results were derived from the PISA test or the Programme for International Student Assessment. The test measures reading, literacy, math, and science abilities among 15-year-olds in industrialized and developing countries. The United States ranked only 38th math and 24th in science out of 71 countries. Out of the 35 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the U.S. placed 30th in math and 19th in science. 

As one of the richest nations in the world, and one that represents opportunity and advancement, it is strange and disappointing to many that the U.S. should perform so poorly on math and science tests compared to the rest of the world. Also, the research shows that something is going amiss in the middle school to high school years in American math and science education since American high school students tested dramatically worse than U.S. students in younger grades.

Improving Education

In recent years, there has been much discussion about encouraging STEM education, or an integrated approach to teaching Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. The traditional way of teaching these subjects to kids is through separate courses, but a STEM program would weave the topics together and show how one discipline is relevant to the other in a synergistic way. 

The need to increase interest in and improve education for these subjects is vital. According to the U.S. Department of Education, only 16% of high school students express an interest in mathematics and just 28% indicate that they want to pursue a STEM linked career someday, but 57% of the latter group will lose interest by the time they graduate. However, the need for a STEM-trained workforce is great. The U.S. Department of Labor predicts shortages across the board in many STEM-related professions, including computing and engineering. Over half of these jobs do not require a college degree, but education is necessary.

The Obama Administration in 2009 introduced the “Educate to Innovate” program to encourage more teaching and learning STEM subjects and increased the funding of STEM educational programs. Although it is hard to measure the results from this specific program after just a few years, more initiatives and government support may be needed to help the United States move from the lower-middle to the leadership position in science and math worldwide. 

What Parents Can Do

Parents can become partners in the effort to increase interest and ability among their children in math and science subjects. Starting when a child is young, engaging in conversations about how plants grow, numbers, how computers work can begin an enduring interest in the world from a scientific perspective. 

It is clear from the performance on the tests and changes in the average curriculum that many children start to experience difficulties with math and science in middle school and high school. This may because of rote tasks, such as memorizing multiplication tables or theorems, and also happen as the subject matter becomes more abstract.

It may be a good idea to invest in a tutor to assist your child with math and science topics. Choosing a tutor from a premier tutoring company like Tutoring Tactics is a better idea than recruiting someone from the neighborhood, since tutoring firms screen and train their tutors carefully. A tutor can give your child the confidence to work through complex math and science problems and develop the tools to think independently.
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