Math the path America has lost

When I was a kid growing up in India we had a domestic help named Kashi. He would go to…

Math the path America has lost

(Photo: Getty Images)

When I was a kid growing up in India we had a domestic help named Kashi. He would go to the bazaar every morning with a grocery list prepared by my mother. She would also estimate the amount of money needed to buy stuff on the list and give it to Kashi with a few extra rupees. When Kashi returned from the market he would give my mother a detailed account of everything he purchased. My mother would be satisfied if Kashi returned what she calculated as the balance from the initial amount she had given.

However, she always suspected that Kashi inflated prices of some items and pocketed some money. She had no choice but to trust Kashi because she had no time to go with him or to verify prices by some independent means. Assuming my mother was right in her suspicion it required two capabilities on part of Kashi: ability to do some basic math in his head and ability to accurately memorise each number. The point of this story is that mathematical skills are ingrained among all Indians even at the lowest social level.

The situation is diametrically opposite in the USA where even college-educated kids cannot do simple addition and multiplication without a calculator. Now that I am retired I have plenty of time on my hand and I decided to do occasional private tutoring of high school students in math. It was not for money but I was curious to see what is being taught these days and how. What I have learnt is alarming to say the least. There are two practices widely followed in most American schools these days: A) Text-books have virtually disappeared and have been replaced by teachers’ notes available only on laptop or tablet computers connected to some school website.


Even when text-books exist the teachers do not seem to follow them. B) Before every test the students are given a “practice review test” with the understanding that problems in the real test would be very similar but with the numbers changed. The idea is that if the students do well in the practice test chances are that they would also do well in the actual test.

Gone are the days of emphasis on understanding the concepts involved so that a student can figure out himself or herself how to attack a problem. It is almost like memorising a set of techniques with the guarantee that it would enable them to do all test problems. Also without a text-book it is sufficient for the students to do all the assigned homework problems; there is no reason to go beyond that. The philosophy behind these policies is the conviction that all students need to be taught a minimum level of mathematics even if it means learning only a limited set of manipulations as opposed to in-depth understanding of concepts.

To make it even easier for the students, technology behind calculators has been steadily advancing. It is no longer enough to have a scientific calculator with trigonometric, logarithmic and exponential functions but they should have “graphing” capability as well as various built-in statistical calculations. All the students have to learn is the order in which to punch the buttons. One major turning point in this dilution of math teaching was the introduction of the so-called “CommonCore” curriculum during the Obama administration.

The idea was to make the math curriculum a standard one across the US and make sure that every student learned, at least to some extent, all the basic concepts. The flip side of this was lack of incentive for brighter students to do anything significantly better. As a result, the overall math competency among high school students suffered and this has been repeatedly documented by SAT scores and other parameters.

When the students enter colleges, they shy away from technical subjects and even if they do not, their employers get more mediocre candidates. It is no wonder that USA ranks 25th in math competency among 34 developed nations according to one survey and behind countries like China, Singapore, South Korea and Finland.

Silicon Valley industries are flooded with IT engineers from India and China. The ideology involved is not too dissimilar from a wealth redistribution scheme. In the wealth redistribution concept wealthy people are discouraged or prohibited from accumulating excessive wealth, typically through heavy taxation, and that money is spent funding social welfare and entitlement programmes to benefit the poor.

Similarly, high schools are devoting their resources to make sure that students at the bottom of the “bell curve” get enough easy problems to solve so that their confidence is boosted. The brighter students are coasting through the courses and not achieving their potential. To make math teaching political a professor at the University of Illinois, Rochelle Gutierrez, claimed in a recently published article that math education “perpetuates white privilege”. She pointed out that topics like “Pythagorean Theorem” formulated by the Greeks suggest that math is European culture. Her article takes my analogy with wealth redistribution one step further.

It is equivalent to saying that white people have a monopoly not only on wealth but also on knowledge of math which is a key to almost all professional successes and social status. It is possible that the wealthier people are disillusioned by the quality of math education in public schools and send their children to private schools so that they acquire better math skills. However, the reason has nothing to do with “whiteness”. The basic deficiency in math cuts across the entire spectrum of American society. Society is paying dearly for this deficiency. Most people live hand to mouth because they do not or cannot even balance their cheque books and do not understand concepts like “cash flow” and investing.

Every year Americans spend billions of dollars to get their tax returns prepared by professional accountants. Ironically tax codes are so complicated that even a person well versed in math would have difficulty in correctly interpreting and applying them. They shell out billions in buying lottery tickets or gambling in casinos because they have no concept of “probability”. Even rich and educated people get scammed by their accountants or money managers.

A majority of the population lacks the mathematical skill to make a sound financial plan for post-retirement lives. A recent shocking report claims that 60- 70 per cent of people in the USA have less than $1000 as retirement savings. Is it possible to reverse this trend? The present political divide will certainly make it difficult. Contrary to Professor Gutierrez’s assertion it is the children of eastern Asian and Indian immigrants and not white people who are excelling in math.

Perhaps parental expectations, genetic differences and inherent frugality are the reasons. It is quite possible that the social demographic division in professional jobs will soon shift in their favour. They know that math is the path to success whether it is their profession or money management.

(The writer, a physicist who worked in academia and industry, is a Bengali settled in America)