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Friday Interview: Competing Ideals Limit Americans’ Math Success

Duke professor Vigdor offers ideas to boost U.S. student achievement

American students test poorly in mathematics when compared to students in other developed countries. Even students in some “developing” countries post higher math scores than Americans. Dr. Jacob Vigdor, professor of public policy and economics at Duke University, has researched the topic. He discussed his findings during an interview with Mitch Kokai for Carolina Journal Radio. (Click here to find a station near you or to learn about the weekly CJ Radio podcast.)

Kokai: First of all, you have spent a lot of time looking at the data, and Americans do fare poorly compared to these other countries on math scores. Is this something we should worry about?

Vigdor: It is. If you look around the country and you look around the world, people who have strong math skills are more productive workers. There is a lot of work for them to do. Even if you look at the immigration policy debate these days, a lot of the people that we’re trying to bring into this country — if you see, you know, the CEOs who are lining up behind changes to immigration policy, they want workers who are skilled at some of these more mathematically intensive tasks. And the United States just can’t produce enough of those workers.

Kokai: And in the past this was not true? Americans rated highly, and we’ve fallen behind in recent years? Is that right?

Vigdor: The United States was a little bit better off in previous years, but, you know, you can go all the way back to the Sputnik era, and people have been worrying about math performance of American students for more than half a century. We’ve been trying to do things about it for more than half a century, and, well, frankly, they haven’t worked. And in some cases there is some evidence that they backfired.

Kokai: So if this has been something that has been noted for a number of years, many things, as you just said, have been tried and have failed, why?

Vigdor: Well, it’s a long story, but, you know, the basic message is that we have a couple of competing desires in American society. On the one hand, we want to provide the best possible education to the best and brightest. Some people have a natural proclivity for mathematics, and for those people we want to give them the resources they need to excel at the very highest levels. And then we have this other desire, which is that we want, sort of, the typical, the average student to do really well at the same time.

And I think what we’ve discovered over the years is that we sort of wobbled back and forth between trying to make everybody a superstar and then realizing that we can’t make everybody a superstar and just trying to help the kids who were struggling. And the thing that makes that difficult is that you can’t accomplish both things at the same time if you’re trying to apply sort of a one-size-fits-all math curriculum. If you go too fast, you leave some kids behind. If you go too slowly, you’ll help the kids who you would have left behind, but the superstars are going to be sitting around without enough work to do, and you won’t be realizing the full potential of those students.

Kokai: With these two competing goals, trying to make sure that everyone gets the good, solid education and does well and then actually dealing with those who have the proclivities to be very good at math, you’re failing everyone in some respects.

Vigdor: That’s right. All you have to do is look at what’s happened to algebra textbooks over time. If you look at introductory algebra textbooks from 100 years ago, they went into some really advanced topics that you just won’t see in your average introductory algebra textbook these days. So what we’ve done in order to make the curriculum more accessible is that we’ve sort of lowered our standards in a lot of respects.

And so what happens is that maybe we’ve helped some people, but at the same time the curriculum is no longer as challenging as it once was for students who are high-achieving students. And so this is why when you’re trying to find someone like an electrical engineer or a computer programmer, you have to find someone who is trained abroad.

Kokai: Now, I’m guessing that we’re not going to get to the point where one of these two goals is going to go away. Some people are always going to say, “Hey, everyone should get a good, solid math education.” And others are going to say, “Yes, but we need to make sure that the best students are getting the best possible education.”

Vigdor: Yes.

Kokai: Given that we have those two goals, how do we go about addressing this?

Vigdor: The way to slice the Gordian knot, so to speak, is to just treat students differently. And, you know, where that gets you into trouble is that what we’re talking about doing is tracking. We’re talking about having differentiated curriculum. We’re talking about taking our best students and giving them something different than what we’re giving the average student.

The problem that you run into with that kind of strategy is that there are a lot of voices within the education establishment that say, “Well, you know, we really want to be treating all the students the same. And we want to treat every child like they’re a superstar,” even though, well, you know, the test score data show the truth, which is that some kids arrive in kindergarten just readier for more advanced work than others.

But if we can actually differentiate the curriculum, that gives us the opportunity to have courses that are very rigorous and really challenging for the high-achieving students while still giving, you know, your average, your moderately performing students the opportunity to do work that’s at their level and really helps them get where they need to be.

Kokai: Is there a good way to pursue that goal that would allow a student to be able to move from one track to another? Let’s say a student struggles early on in math, but then the light bulb moment goes off and he or she could suddenly be ready for the higher level. Is there some way that we can design that would enable that type of change to happen?

Vigdor: I think that’s really possible. Particularly these days, with the introduction of more technology into schools, that there are ways to use technology and to use the expertise of just teachers to help identify those students who are turning a corner in their own personal progression and get them into the more enriched courses if they demonstrate that they’re ready for them.

Kokai: Some people might hear what we’re saying, and they will say to themselves, “Well, if this has been an issue for 50 years or more, and the United States is still a technological leader and largely because we import people who are smart mathematically, shouldn’t we just keep that current system and not worry about this?” Why should we worry about this?

Vigdor: Here is the sort of scenario that you want to watch out for. Imagine that we continue to sort of import our engineers and our mathematicians and we just let the American students major in philosophy and English and the things that are less mathematically intensive. If you just look at the labor market data, what we’re going to evolve into is a situation where, you know, your American-born students are going to be the ones occupying the lower rungs of the ladder compared to the people who have the more technical skills.

The workplace demands technical skills. And as we have this continued advance of technology replacing the need for manual labor and replacing the need even for just sort of routine intellectual labor, you’ve got to have students perform at that level if you want to ensure them the standard of living to which Americans have become accustomed.

Kokai: Given what you know about the data, given what your research has shown, how confident are you that Americans and the American education system [are] going to be able to find a solution that will help cut that Gordian knot that you mentioned?

Vigdor: I’d imagine, to be quite frank, that we’ve got some wrestling to do because … I mentioned before that there were a couple of things that we hold dear. One of them is making sure that the best and brightest get what they need. One of them is making sure we don’t leave any children behind. And then we’ve got this third thing as well, which is that, you know, we believe in equality. Well, to solve this problem we have to relax our standards with regard to one of those things.

Either we’re going to leave some kids behind, we’re not going to challenge the top performers, or we’re going to have to differentiate the curriculum and acknowledge the fact that we can’t really treat everybody the same in public schools. And so I don’t know that everybody — particularly everybody in the education system — is prepared to go there right now. But what we’re going to try to do as researchers is just bring the evidence out there and show people this is what we’re finding and these are the implications of the high-quality research we’ve been doing on this subject.