Let’s Teach Math to the Talented Online

By 11/10/2010

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Thirty countries do better than the United States at teaching math to the talented, my colleagues and I reported this week.  Six percent of American students, but over 20 percent of the students in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea and Finland perform at the advanced level.  More than twice as high a percentage of Canadians, Japanese, Czechs, New Zealanders, Dutch Swiss and Belgian students are achieving at that high level than the students in the United States.

So given the shortage of high performing math students, it comes as no surprise to learn that Google is giving all employees a 10 percent salary increase across the board, because it is worried its mathematically talented employees will abscond to high paying competitors. A math skilled American is becoming such an endangered species that employers have become as assiduous at keeping them as the National Park Service is at rescuing wolves.

What can we do about it?  The other breaking news story—Joel Klein’s departure as chancellor of the New York City school system to take a job in digital learning—gives us a clue.  Let’s create outstanding courses online, led by the country’s best algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus teachers, and backed up by sophisticated ancillary material. Schools could then access these materials and redeploy their (less qualified) teachers as classroom coaches that support the online instruction.  Each student can learn at the level and pace appropriate to their situation.

Trying to improve the desperate situation school by school by encouraging talented mathematicians to go into the teaching profession will take too long and cost too much.

Bill Gates said the best college courses will be offered online within 5 years.  If that is so, then there is no reason the best middle school and high school math courses cannot also be offered online. I hope Joel Klein—or one of his competitors–finds a way to get this done.

If you don’t think the online solution will work, you must have a better idea. I’d like to know what it is.

–Paul E. Peterson

Comment on this article
  • Robert says:

    Hi Paul;

    Keep in mind that just making the content digital doesn’t exactly give us a competitive advantage. Putting a text book online with video lectures and interactive widgets is still teaching math the same way; it’s just more efficient.

    It also plays into the assumption that the other countries that currently lead us aren’t going to be innovating in this area as well. They are competing against each other, not just the U.S. I actually find this one of the biggest hidden assumptions in any education reform plan – the myth that other countries will just be standing still waiting for us to catch up. Politicians and pundits fall into the “improvement” trap by comparing ourselves to ourselves.

    So what’s really needed is innovation in this field, not just improvement or efficiency. You know, something more like the innovation email is to the post marked letter, like eBay is to the garage sale, like Facebook is to the high school year book.

    The answer, dynamic simulations and multiplayer video game styled scenarios. First, compelling video game content creates engagement and a context for application. It immediately vanquishes the question of “why am I learning this?”. Second, the context of a larger scenario puts a real relation of the building block definitions and equations to a dynamic system of events. The student immediately sees the outcome of their mathematical decisions (or less immediately and realizes the consequences later!)

    Layered on top of this is the competition or cooperative challenges of a multiplayer scenario. This adds strategic analysis to what kids are learning. It adds collaborative communication skills, logistics, and a whole host of intense thinking skills that are the kind of competitive global advantage we need.

    In 2006 I released the first action adventure series to teach algebra. Full story line and missions to challenge kids. It won Macworld Editors’ Choice Award 2007. Full university research studies show, for students in some of the most under-resourced districts, it raises their grades 2 to 3 grade levels on state exams. On average for the rest of the population, 1 grade level. It has an 87% student approval rating and 97% of the teachers who use it recommend it.

    How many kids already play Halo, StarCraft II, Simms, Fantasy Football, Baseball, and Basketball which are full of stats, math and strategic analysis?!!

    And here’s the best part, you can “test” both the “testable” items like definitions and equations and the larger big picture and creative thinking. Each of the objectives in a game is built up using sub-objectives that require knowledge – the testable kind, like, “We need a cruiser with the longest range to get to the rendezvous”. Student must find the clues to calculate which vehicle has the longest range. The scenario is set up to fail if you run out of gas. Or, you lose time finding gas somewhere along the way. The multiplayer competition then “ranks” who understands the scenario and resource constraints the best. Therefore, you have just “tested” both the building blocks of the content so many people love to “test” and the higher order thinking everyone says we can’t measure.

    I have plenty more examples of how this works in addition to the thousands of students using these games now.

  • […] up on his report today at the Education Next blog, Paul Peterson makes an excellent case for expanding use of online delivery systems to bring more students closer to high-quality math […]

  • Michael says:

    Hmm. “Twice as high a percentage” sounds scary. But what are the absolute numbers, I wonder? Lots of Finns, do you think, Paul?

    But then, I’m a fan of the Finnish attitudes and practices when it comes to child rearing. For some reason, even though they perform extremely well on these “all-important” international exams, I hear no clamoring for the US to adapt Finnish mathematics materials in K-12, unlike the similar hue and cry for the adaption of Singapore Math.

    Any ideas as to why that might be?

    And is the sky REALLY falling throughout the USA when it comes to mathematics?

  • Michael Paul Goldenberg says:

    Where the sky can be said to be falling is in inner-city and perhaps rural poor schools. It’s not falling in middle class and affluent schools and never has been, though nay-sayers have been whining about the deterioration of our schools and the ignorance of “young people today” at least as far back as Horace Mann. Every perceived national shortcoming is blamed on public schools (see Sputnik, for a notorious example, though the recent economic hard times drawing yet another wave of “blame the teachers” have far more obviously to do with a lack of ethics on the part of greedy Wall Streeters and corporate entities, and an obscene lack of control and oversight thanks to decades of right-wing efforts to remove them than they possible could have to do with schools.

    We’re about to see another spate of such nonsense, but now the forces of educational deform are close to perfecting their plans to privatize, if not ALL public schools, at least those in urban poor districts like Detroit, Chicago, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Washington, DC, and New York. The groundwork is in place, the rhetoric from the right (and the neo-liberals who are just as reactionary when it comes to education as their conservative allies) is in full-flow, corporate idiots like Gates and Broad are smacking their lips, media flacks like Oprah are singing the praises of know-nothings like Joel Klein and Michelle Rhee, and so the great dismantling is under way.

    Meanwhile, no one in power looks at the most obvious fact: there is no concern about actually addressing poverty. As long as schools are expected to undo the ill-effects of that blight, this wave of educational deform is just a joke, hiding the real agenda of corporate take-overs to turn public education into another source of income for the affluent.

    As to the actual quality of mathematics education in such schools, never fear: lots of ways to make money pushing drill-and-skill, parrot mathematics. Wouldn’t want the unwashed to learn real mathematical thinking, though. Thinking leads to questioning, and questioning our immoral, unethical system where 2% of the population has the lion’s share of the wealth is something those in power will never care to see.

    When THAT sky starts to fall, well, then perhaps we’ll see some interesting action worth discussing. As for Paul’s empty comments, they’re simply part of the movement to scare folks into ceding control of public education to the powerful. Don’t swallow the Kool-Aid.

  • Not too many Canadians, Germans, French, Brits, Koreans, Japanese, Czechs, New Zealanders, Australians?

    If you want to go with raw numbers, do you really think we have more talented math folk than the Chinese and the Indians?

    Percentages tell you how well a society produces its talented. Raw numbers tell you how many live in a place.

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