It’s Time for U.S. Students to Man (and Woman) Up!

Although the United States is one of the richest countries in the world, our high school students’ performance in math is woefully lacking. That’s according to the international assessments, including Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), or the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). Pretty alarming.

Yet many people attempt to dismiss these findings. They slice the data to compare students of similar backgrounds or status. They claim that the assessments are inadequate in measuring true student abilities. They cite the misalignment between the assessments and our curricula. I suppose that educators in other countries—save for high-achieving Norway and Singapore—cite the same reasons for their students not performing to their expectations.

The world population density map, based on 2006 data.

In a world of 7 billion people, the economies of scale work against the U.S., a nation of just 312 million. If we hope to maintain our average standard of living for future generations and make up for the rest of the world’s population advantage, the abilities of U.S. students need to surpass (and not just be competitive with) those of their international peers. (Let’s not even discuss the economic advantage companies enjoy when their workforce lives in less expensive parts of the world.)

So it is time to stop coddling our students. Too often, we protect them from the most intellectually demanding activities because we don’t understand what’s cognitively difficult and what isn’t.

Doing math practice problems for hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as navigating a group project among 16-year-olds. Negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group—these are cognitive demands that blow away any intense test prep sessions that focus on developing algorithmic skills.

Chances are good that if you’re involved in business or government work, you collaborate with others. This holds true because, by and large, groups are much more efficient at solving problems than individuals are. We need our peers to question and test our thinking. Without these sounding boards, we risk continually repeating our mistakes. In the business world, we strive to work in teams where members have diverse beliefs and backgrounds, not because it is politically correct or legally mandated, but because we arrive at better solutions than if we work alone or only with folks of like minds.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have found that groups have a higher collective intelligence when their members are adept at perceiving each others’ emotions—when they take turns speaking and when the inputs from each member are managed.

Participating in a well-functioning group is not easy. It requires the ability to trust people with whom you may not feel completely comfortable, read intonations, and understand how the personalities in the room can and cannot fit together. This skill set is not taught formally, but it can be imparted through arduous and repeated experiences.

We educators can no longer shelter our students from these experiences by allowing them to work individually on tasks that don’t require collaboration. If we continue to employ curricula and teaching strategies that allow students to isolate themselves, we are fostering math wimps (yes, wimps) who will continue to be out-muscled by their international peers as they enter the workforce.

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