The U.S. Is Not #1 in Math! Who Cares?

Illusory truth effect: the tendency to believe false information to be correct after repeated exposure.

In other words, it is a lie that has been told so many times that we just accept it. We forget to be skeptical. We forget to examine. We forget to question. One of the biggest lies that has been promulgated on the American populace is that our public educational system is broken. All of it. Everywhere. The folks who love to bandy this about also want us to believe that the United States is lagging woefully behind the rest of the world in education. Usually, this claim and its supporting data are accompanied by screaming headlines, hand-wringing, and the gnashing of teeth. Throw in some rending of garments, and you’ve got yourself a crisis of biblical proportions.

It’s true, some individual schools and a few school districts are, indeed, in crisis. Schools anywhere are a reflection of the culture in which they exist. My premise is that this is NOT the epidemic that we are led to believe.

I just waded through several reports on international education rankings. They all say (the authors wringing their hands all the while) that the United States lags in math and science. The United States has been slowly going downhill since the 70s. The United States isn’t a world leader in education. Blah blah blah.

While it is important to share information with other countries—most importantly to share GREAT ideas for the good of all—it is absolutely NOT important to compare ourselves to them with these scores. We have become so used to hearing the mantra that our schools are failing, our teachers are failing, our kids are failing, that we actually believe it.

I, and a whole mess of other teachers, however, have actually BEEN in schools around our great nation and we’re here to tell you that MOST schools, teachers, and students are NOT FAILING. In fact, we’re performing MIRACLES—every day! The fact is, school is a good deal more complicated than it ever was when our policy makers attended it. The fact is, the American family is more complicated than it’s ever been and the effects of that affect our schools. The fact is, some schools are set up for failure because of harmful policies and practices–too many kids in the classroom, not enough resources, parents who are not doing their jobs. But rather than go into an explanation of all the ways schools are doing a great job and increasing rigor well past the high water mark of 1975 –DESPITE the odds being stacked against them–I’d like to take this in a different direction…

We’re Not #1 and You Shouldn’t Care!

Here’s Why:



Inequitable Comparisons

1. The rankings do not compare apples to apples. No other country on Earth has the diversity in both socio-economic and ethnic traits that the U.S. does. Yes, some of our European friends are dealing with immigration NOW the way we have for years, but the sheer size of the United States rather diminishes the comparison. Why on earth do we care if we rank behind Luxembourg in reading? Or China in math? Or Sweden in science? Does it really matter? How many people does Luxembourg even have? 15? Just kidding, they have a whopping 602,005–about as many as Baltimore, MD–the 30th largest city in the U.S. Further, why would we want to emulate polluted, lead-toy-making China? No amount of great math scores make ANY of that okay. All three of these example countries have either a highly homogenous population OR virtually no immigration–COMPLETELY unlike the United States.

Poor Journalism


download2. WHY doesn’t the media examine any of these reports by digging a little deeper. Why isn’t the media pointing out that even though Singapore scored higher than the United States, it is a tiny homogenous island. It has about as much in common with the United States as my Aunt Fanny has with Albert Einstein.

Equitable Comparisons

3. The only statistics we should worry about are our own. Yearly improvement is a good goal. Improving one’s own classroom, one’s own school, one’s own community should be the bellwether, not comparing ourselves to educational systems that have little in common with ours. In the U.S. it is not uncommon for our schools to be tasked with the job of raising the children that are sent to them “just” for an education. The internet is rife with blogs and articles illustrating how schools are taking on more and more parental roles; trust me when I say that schools and teachers do NOT want to be raising your children. The sad truth is, however, that if parents won’t care for their children, schools and teachers feel that they must. Here is a related piece from Psychology Today:

Differing Values

4. Many of the countries to which we are compared have a completely different set of values in place. Finland, for example, PAYS its teachers well. France, for example, feeds its children nutritious meals–and doesn’t put up with all that “picky eater” hooey. Australia, for example, has pre-natal home visits for children up through age 3.

download-1On our Camino last fall in Northern Spain, we had the serendipitous opportunity to meet some wonderful folks from Australia. Anne is a registered nurse there whose job it is to work with families and new parents from prenatal to AGE THREE. It is a government funded program—free to the participants—which supports the prenatal health of the baby as well as those important first years. She not only meets with the families, but she also makes home visits. What a perfect time to see how they are coping! Is there ample nutrition in the household? Is it a clean, safe environment? Is there familial support? What habits is the family engendering with their young one? Are there books? Do they understand that they MUST read to their child? Do they understand the importance of a sleep schedule, etc. According to Anne, everyone takes advantage of this wonderful program—not just the poor. Getting children off to a strong start before they are even born is a priority. What a change THAT would make for our schools, don’t you think?

Opportunity for All Is about More Than Education

5. Have you ever wondered how we could have such a robust economy if we weren’t educated? If our schools weren’t doing a lot of things right, our economy would be in the tank, entrepreneurs would be few, and the opportunity to live the American Dream would be dead. I submit to you that while there are still too many families that struggle, this isn’t the fault of the educational system. It’s the fault of policies that make it difficult for folks to afford basic needs. download-2In my hometown, there is a lot of gentrification and building. Virtually none of the housing that is being constructed is for the working poor, but rather for those with deeper pockets. What would happen if there were affordable housing for all? Would we see a dramatic rise in the all-important test scores? 

Excellent University System

6. Why do we have so many international students? Because our university system is second to none. I recently became an adjunct professor at The Ohio State University–consistently one of the top five largest universities in the country. I don’t know what the actual number of international students is, but my anecdotal evidence suggests that it is in the thousands. Just yesterday in the short walk to my classroom, I heard at least 8 different groups of students speaking a language other than English. American students also benefit from our amazing university system. More kids are going to college than ever before; there is a need for a conversation about the fact that NOT everyone should go to college, but that is not the subject of this piece.

Healthy Immigrant Growth

7. WHY do so many people want to move to the US? It’s not because our schools are “failing”! It is because this always has been, is, and ever shall be the land of opportunity. Even though our teachers are asked to be parents, counselors, role models, and care-givers as well as educators, they are making it work. Our immigrant families recognize this.

What can we do to improve?

I. Help Families in Distress

We MUST teach our most vulnerable how to parent. We MUST reach children when they are babies. We MUST front load the information that a stable, safe home environment is absolutely crucial to the well-being of our students and their success in school. Reading is the hinge-pin of a good educational system, but reading starts in the home. Behavioral issues take away from time spent learning; how to behave, control impulses, and respect others starts in the home.


II. Accept our National Identity

We must also own who we are in all our mess. We have a vast country filled with every type of situation imaginable. One size does not fit all.  In the U.S. we are adept at including even the most challenging students and giving them opportunities to succeed to the best of their ability.  I will never forget when we had a delegation from Beijing visit the high school where I taught. As is normal in the United States, I had several students in wheelchairs and/or with aides. One of the Chinese visitors whispered to me that in China, those students wouldn’t be allowed in a “normal” classroom. Is THAT who we want to be? 

III. Eradicate the Testing Culture

We must stop worshipping tests and the “data” that they collect. We must allow schools and teachers to carry out their mission according to their trained expertise. We must stop teaching to a test. We must worry about improving ourselves year to year—no matter what is happening in Timbuktu.

IV. Involve Educators in the Process

Our politicians MUST stop making educational policy without input from the primary stake-holders, i.e. teachers/students. Unless they are willing to swallow their hubris and ask for help in understanding, our government will never be able to enact the necessary policy to actually work on the problems we do have. Raping our wonderful public school system with “school choice” and “vouchers” is like throwing the baby out with the bath water. Voting carefully for elected officials who support our long and illustrious tradition of educating ALL is paramount. Having elected representatives who have actually attended public school is critical to their understanding.


Education for ALL = American Dream

I am aware that not all schools everywhere are perfect. You know why they’re not? Because people aren’t perfect and schools are composed of people, warts and all. If we could just set schools and students up for success—less testing, more positive parental involvement, stable family environments, a government that doesn’t fight the educational system at every turn—who knows what might happen? This is MY American Dream.

4 thoughts on “The U.S. Is Not #1 in Math! Who Cares?

  1. Love what you write and how you write.
    Loved the previous ones.

    Glad you put your thoughts and facts out there on this topic. I particularly like the section on what to do about it, at the end.

    Liked by 1 person

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