For this newsletter, I wanted an answer to the question that seems to have been left behind: How are American kids doing in math? I called William Schmidt, a university distinguished professor and the director of the Center for the Study of Curriculum Policy at Michigan State University, to find out. His body of work informed the Common Core standards in math, and he’s been researching American K-12 math performance and analyzing textbooks for decades.
The journalist Amanda Ripley name-checked Schmidt in her 2013 best seller, “The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way.” She noted at the time that “math eluded American teenagers more than any other subject,” and she cited subpar American performance on an international exam called PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment.
When I talked to Schmidt on the phone last week, he told me that compared with the rest of the world’s, America’s performance has been static since Ripley’s book came out; in 2018, math performance remained below average for the United States, and the trend lines in performance on all subjects have been “stable, with no significant improvement or decline,” according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which oversees PISA.
He said that while we still “stink” compared with similarly developed countries, “we have made huge, huge moves forward in improving the math education of our students.” Decades ago, teachers were trying to cram too many topics into every year of instruction, leading to curriculums that were a “mile wide and an inch deep,” Schmidt told me. In the 1990s, “except for the elite 20 percent, the seventh and eighth grade was still doing arithmetic, when the rest of the world, even the more developing countries, were covering the beginnings of algebra and geometry. We estimated our curriculum was two years behind much of the rest of the world.”
While our curriculum is now more aligned with the rest of the world’s, we haven’t necessarily seen the impact of it. When I asked Schmidt why, he said that it’s probably because of a number of factors, one being that our education system has very little control at the federal level, so it’s tough to know how well any set of standards is being applied more locally. You can see for yourself how well your state is doing on a website, The Nation’s Report Card, which shows how each state ranks on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is given in the fourth, eighth and 12th grades.