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Thursday, February 9, 2006
Answer: Probably Not
By Dr. Steven Taylor @ 8:19 pm

The question (via the CSM): Can Bush make America more competitive in math and science?

I can’t deny that we aren’t as well educated as we could be, or perhaps as we should be, but there is a certain amount of crying wolf here, it would seem. The idea that we are falling behind in math and science is hardly a new one. Indeed, the article notes this:

Americans have heard the warnings for decades: The nation is in danger of falling behind other technological powerhouses in the world, posing a threat to its way of life. In the 1950s, it was the Soviet Union; in the 1980s, Japan. Now the big competitors are India and China.

Perhaps we have finally hit that place where the clarion call is correct, but I have my doubts.

I also have my doubts that the solution is federal funds, and if it is that the amount of money in question will make that much of a difference.

The main issue, it would seem, is the “want to” of students to study math in particular. It isn’t that we lack math teacher, programs or professors (as the funding-as-solution thesis goes), but a question of people wanting those degrees (the story notes the decline of math BAs in particular since the early 1970s).

Of course, I must confess to serious skepticism when it comes to the notion that the Presidency can be used to effectively micro-manage issues such as math and science education.

Filed under: US Politics, Academia | |Send TrackBack


  1. Caveat: I have no numbers to back up the assertions about to be made, only personal observations.

    I’m not at all surprised that the number of Math majors has fallen steadily over the years. The number of subjects that the Math Dept covers in most schools has also fallen steadily over the years.

    The big subtraction since the 70’s was the computer science classes. In most non engineering schools the computer science curricula used to be a part of the Math Dept. Computer nerds would end up with a Math Degree with “concentration” or “minor” in CS. But now these kids can get the CS (or IT or other alphabet) Bachelor’s degree without taking a single course in Calculus.

    The same has happened to a lesser degree in my field, Statistics. Once part of the math program, most large universities now grant a BS in Stats. Again these kids would have been math majors until very recently. There are probably a few other of the math progeny that have split in this way.

    One other chunk of kids that may fit in this are the high school math teachers. Once upon a time more (though not all) got a degree in Math to teach in secondary schools. Now a more common path is a degree in teaching with math certifications.

    One other chunk of kids that may fit in this are the high school math teachers. Once upon a time more (though not all) got a degree in Math to teach in secondary schools. Now a more common path is a degree in teaching with math certifications.

    Overall this looks like a statistic that was found but not thoroughly researched. My guess is that if you add the Math majors, Stats Majors, the CS majors, and the teachers with a certification in HS math you’ll get many more of that group today than you would have in the 70’s (as stats and CS degrees were almost unheard of in the 70’s).

    More choice means less math majors. But I’m not at all sure that’s a bad thing.

    Comment by Buckland — Friday, February 10, 2006 @ 7:21 am

  2. Thanks for the info-and suspect you are correct.

    It will be interesting to see if the “No Child Left Behind Act” and its requirement that teachers be “highly qualified” (i.e., degreed in the area they teach in) will cause a significant uptick in math majors.

    I do know that NCLB caused our university to revamp its curricula by eliminating things like “History Education” majors and making those student simply major in History. If there is anything good about NCLB, it is that shift in educational focus.

    Comment by Dr. Steven Taylor — Friday, February 10, 2006 @ 8:07 am

  3. I’ve recently spent time in third and fifth grade classrooms as a substitute teacher, and it doesn’t surprise me at all that we are behind in math and science. At the school where I sub, the third grade math curriculum is so highly structured (they use SAXON math, what ever that is) that it doesn’t seem to matter if the kids get it our not, there are just certain motions the teachers are required to go through.

    I also think that the attitude and the motivation of the teachers makes a HUGE difference. My youngest son is now in third grade and I was recently supervising him doing his spelling homework. I was reminded of when my oldest son was in third grade. The youngest is learning words like “monster” and “Ohio”, but when my oldest (now 16) was in third grade he learned words like “schadenfraude.” He had a great teacher who believed that the students could learn and was willing to actually teach them. Knowledge of your subject is definitely important, but I think attitude is key also.

    Comment by Jan — Saturday, February 11, 2006 @ 7:24 pm

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