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There’s no such thing as being “good” or “bad” at math

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A teacher uses a wall as a makeshift blackboard. China has imparted strong math skills to a largely poor population by adding more classes.
By Allison Schrager
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

As an American, I was in the minority in my PhD program—and I was at Columbia University. That’s because I studied economics, a so-called quantitative subject. During graduate school, my fellow Americans in law school or business school often remarked about what a math genius I must be. Then came their confession:

“I wanted to do an economics PhD too, but my undergrad professor told me I can’t handle all that math, that I can’t compete with foreigners and their math skills.”

All I could think is that I never considered myself great at math at all and I should consider myself lucky that nobody ever told me I needed to be before I started. Still, their stories didn’t surprise me. My fellow graduate students treated the undergraduates we taught as math deficient. We held back on how quantitative we made our lessons, assuming they couldn’t understand it. Even if we tried to push them the students got uncomfortable and complained. My foreign peers were resigned to the idea that most American liberal arts students just couldn’t do advanced math—and we were in one of the country’s best universities.

The latest results from the 2013 Skills Outlook, from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), suggest my experience wasn’t anecdotal. Americans fall far behind their foreign counter parts when it comes to numeracy and problem-solving skills. More than half of Americans perform below the OECD average. When the population is limited to young adults, Americans come in last, out of 24 advanced countries. Even among the highly educated population, people with graduate degrees, Americans performed worse, despite the fact that the world’s best universities are here.

This is a serious problem, and not just because the US needs more engineers to compete with India and China. The market for routine mid-level, skilled jobs is disappearing, leaving only well-paid jobs that require cognitive ability. The alternative is poorly paid, low-skill jobs. The OECD study finds a correlation between skill inequality and income inequality—America stands out for high levels of both. To reduce future income inequality, we must focus more on math education, especially for disadvantaged students. That’s because learning math improves cognitive and non-cognitive ability.

Thus, the OECD concludes that improving your math skills translates into higher earnings. That’s especially true for college graduates; simply going to college is not enough to be a high earner—you also need thinking skills. Though that’s also the case for people who only finish high school. These findings are consistent with Harvard economist Josh Goodman’s conclusion that more math courses increased the wages and educational attainment of black American men, even if they didn’t go in to a quantitative field.

According to NYU psychology professor Clancy Blair, whom I interviewed a few years ago, exposure to math makes you smarter and more disciplined. Performing calculations improves functioning of the pre-frontal cortex, a part of the brain associated with the process of so-called executive functioning.  Executive functions include better reasoning, problem-solving skills, behavior, and ability to self regulate. That translates into an ability to earn more money and form stable relationships.

To be sure, learning math is hard. According to Blair, performing mathematical calculations invokes a cognitive self-evaluative process, which can cause stress and anxiety.

The challenge is getting American students and teachers to push themselves.  We are quick to dismiss students as good or bad at math when it gets hard. But what students really need at that stage is more math classes, rather than an assumption they’ve reached a limit. The OECD also assesses student achievement in 70 different countries with its tri-annual Program for International Student Assessment study. Andreas Schleicher, who oversees the study, recently described how teenagers view success in different countries:

“North Americans tell you typically it’s all luck. ‘I’m born talented in mathematics, or I’m born less talented so I’ll study something else.’

“In Europe, it’s all about social heritage: ‘My father was a plumber so I’m going to be a plumber’.

“In China, more than nine out of 10 children tell you: ‘It depends on the effort I invest and I can succeed if I study hard.’

The study also examines the factors that increase resiliency in low-income students. Countries, for example, that have high fractions of high performing poor students include China and Korea. One factor that stands out in those places is more instruction. This is consistent with Goodman’s recent paper that found doubling the number of math classes for underperforming math students in Chicago public schools improved graduation and college completion rates. Extra classes were more effective than remedial classes or teaching advanced math earlier.

The OECD skill report is another reminder of how American students, at all levels, are falling behind. Getting American students to like and learn math has become a high priority. Concrete remedies such as more instruction, accountability teacher training, parental engagement and resources are all necessary. But we also must rethink our approach to math, for all students—and discourage use of the expressions “good at math” or “bad at math.” They only serve as an excuse to underperform.

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