America’s Poor Math Skills Raise Concerns

10 October 2023

Many Americans joke about how bad they are at math. But, labor experts and others in the United States are not laughing. They say the nation's ever-decreasing math skill threatens U.S. economic competitiveness and national security.

Jim Stigler is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. He studies the process of teaching and learning subjects, including math. He said, "The advances in technology that are going to drive where the world goes in the next 50 years are going to come from other countries, because they have the intellectual capital and we don't."

The Education Reporting Collaborative, a coalition of eight news agencies, is documenting the math crisis facing schools. Members of the Collaborative are, The Associated Press, The Christian Science Monitor, The Dallas Morning News, The Hechinger Report, Idaho Education News, The Post and Courier in South Carolina, and The Seattle Times.

FILE - Teacher Jerry Howland explains an equation during the Bridge to Calculus summer program at Northeastern University in Boston on Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Reba Saldanha)
FILE - Teacher Jerry Howland explains an equation during the Bridge to Calculus summer program at Northeastern University in Boston on Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Reba Saldanha)

The U.S. military has called for a major program to support education in science, technology, education, and math (STEM). It argues that the U.S. is dangerously behind other nations. The Defense Department says China produces eight times as many college graduates in these study fields as the United States. It says Russia produces four times as many engineers as the U.S.

Government labor experts say the number of jobs in areas requiring math skill will increase by more than 30,000 each year through the end of 2030. That is much faster than most other kinds of jobs.

"Mathematics is becoming more and more a part of almost every career," said Michael Allen. He chairs the math department at Tennessee Technological University.

But most American students are not prepared for those jobs. In the most recent Program for International Student Assessment tests in math (PISA), U.S. students tested lower than students from 36 other education systems around the world. Students in China tested the highest.

Only one in five American high school students planning to attend college is prepared for college-level study in STEM, say experts at the National Science and Technology Council, a government group.

However, students from other countries are preparing to lead in these areas, reports the National Foundation for American Policy, a non-profit organization. It says only one in five graduate students in math-heavy fields at U.S. universities are American. The rest come from other countries. Most will leave the U.S. when they finish their programs.

In Massachusetts, employers are expecting a shortage over the next five years of 11,000 workers in the life sciences alone.

"It's not a small problem," said Edward Lambert Jr. He is director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education. "We're just not starting students, particularly students of color and from lower-resourced families, on career paths related to math and computer science and those things in which we need to stay competitive, or starting them early enough," he said.

"This is not an educational question alone," said Josh Wyner, a vice president of the Aspen Institute, a think tank. In July, it warned that other nations are gaining near to America's technological power.

It urged decision makers to make education an important national security goal. "We are no longer keeping pace with other countries, particularly China," the Aspen report says, calling this a "dangerous" failure.

I'm Gregory Stachel.

Jon Marcus reported this story for The Associated Press. Gregory Stachel adapted the story for VOA Learning English.


Words in This Story

advances n. progress in the development or improvement of something

intellectual adj. of or relating to the ability to think in a logical way

graduate v. to earn a degree or diploma from a school, college, or university

particularly – adv. more than usually

think tank – n. an organization that consists of a group of people who think of new ideas on a particular subject or who give advice about what should be done

pace – n. the speed at which something happens