A bittersweet victory
As reported by Michael Miller of the Washington Post, in July of 2015, the U.S. edged out China for the International Mathematics Olympiad prize. What was stunning about this victory, however, was this was 21 years coming. The last time the U.S. led the world in math ability as measured through competitions was in 1994. In measure after measure, American students perform worse than their international counterparts.
America vs the world (mathematically)
Americans should not let this victory go to their heads, though. Earlier in 2015, a Pew Research study found that "While U.S. students are scoring higher on national math assessments than they did two decades ago . . . , they still rank around the middle of the pack in international comparisons, and behind many other advanced industrial nations." While the math ability of American students is improving, we still have a long way to go in math education. Many future math educators are aware of this gap but are unaware of the ramifications of poor math education.
Math ability affects career success
In 2014, researchers David Lubinski, Camilla P. Benbow, and Harrison J. Kell published a study that looked at the career paths of people who scored high on math tests given back in the 1970s. Four decades later, Scientific American reports, those math whiz kids have grown into successful scholars and business leaders. The study found that excellent math ability "early in life predicts later creative contributions and leadership in critical occupational roles." In fact, among the 1,650 participants in the study, 25 percent of them went on to pursue doctorates (compared to 2 percent of the general population), and they published 7,572 academic articles and 85 books within the group alone.
While this is just one study of math ability as a predictor of career success, the numbers are too large to ignore. A firm math education early in life can have benefits lasting well over four decades later. And better math education is not just beneficial for those who score high on math tests. Comparing international math scores to economic development from 1960 to 2000, researchers at Harvard University, Stanford University, the University of California-San Francisco, and the University of Munich found that "A highly skilled work force can raise economic growth by about two-thirds of a percentage point every year." That is, their study correlated higher math skills to a country's economic growth. Findings such as these show that quality math education could be a major driver of both individual and collective economic success.
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