America’s poor math skills raise alarms over global competitiveness

Sep 25, 2023, 9:11 PM

Bridge to Calculus summer program participants, from left, Steven Ramos, Kevin Dang, Kevin Tran, Pe...

Bridge to Calculus summer program participants, from left, Steven Ramos, Kevin Dang, Kevin Tran, Peter St. Louis-Severe, Elian Martinez, and Wintana Tewolde pose for a photo on the campus of Northeastern University in Boston on Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023. Some of the graduates of Bridge to Calculus end up enrolling at Northeastern and proceeding to its highly ranked computer science and engineering programs, which — like those at other U.S. universities — struggle to attract homegrown talent. (AP Photo/Reba Saldanha)

(AP Photo/Reba Saldanha)

BOSTON (AP) — Like a lot of high school students, Kevin Tran loves superheroes, though perhaps for different reasons than his classmates.

“They’re all insanely smart. In their regular jobs they’re engineers, they’re scientists,” said Tran, 17. “And you can’t do any of those things without math.”

Tran also loves math. This summer, he studied calculus five hours a day with other high schoolers in a program at Northeastern University.

But Tran and his friends are not the norm. Many Americans joke about how bad they are at math, and already abysmal scores on standardized math tests are falling even further.

The nation needs people who are good at math, employers say, in the same way motion picture mortals need superheroes. They say America’s poor math performance isn’t funny. It’s a threat to the nation’s global economic competitiveness and national security.


The math crisis facing schools and highlighting progress. Members of the Collaborative are AL.com, 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.


“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,” said Jim Stigler, a psychology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies the process of teaching and learning subjects including math.

The Defense Department has called for a major initiative to support education in science, technology, education and math, or STEM. It says there are eight times as many college graduates in these disciplines in China and four times as many engineers in Russia as in the United States.

“This is not an educational question alone,” said Josh Wyner, vice president of The Aspen Institute think tank. In July, the think tank warned that other nations, particularly China, are challenging America’s technological dominance. “Resolving the fundamental challenges facing our time requires math.”

Meanwhile, the number of jobs in math occupations — positions that “use arithmetic and apply advanced techniques to make calculations, analyze data and solve problems” — will increase by more than 30,000 per year through the end of this decade, Bureau of Labor Statistics figures show. That’s much faster than most other kinds of jobs.

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

Tennessee Tech runs a summer camp teaching cybersecurity, which requires math, to high school students. “That lightbulb goes off and they say, ‘That’s why I need to know that,’” Allen said. Computer-related jobs — ranging from software development to semiconductor production — require math, too. Analysts say those fields have or will develop labor shortages.

But most American students aren’t prepared for those jobs. In the most recent Program for International Student Assessment tests in math, or PISA, U.S. students scored prepared for college-level courses in STEM, according to the National Science and Technology Council.

One result: Students from other countries are preparing to lead these fields. Only one in five graduate students in math-intensive subjects including computer science and electrical engineering at U.S. universities are American, the National Foundation for American Policy reports. The rest come from abroad. Most will leave the U.S. when they finish their programs.

In the U.S., poor math skills could mean lower salaries for today’s kids. A Stanford economist has estimated that, if U.S. pandemic math declines are not reversed, students now in kindergarten through grade 12 will earn from 2% to 9% less over their careers, depending on what state they live in, than their predecessors educated just before the start of the pandemic.

But it also means the country’s productivity and competitiveness could slide.

“Math just underpins everything,” said Megan Schrauben, executive director of the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity’s MiSTEM initiative, which tries to get more students into STEM. “It’s extremely important for the future prosperity of our students and communities, but also our entire state.”

In Massachusetts, employers are anticipating 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., executive 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.”

The Bridge to Calculus program at Northeastern, where Kevin Tran spent his summer, is one response to that. The 113 participating students were paid $15 an hour, most of it from Boston and its public schools, said the program’s coordinator, Bindu Veetel. The university provided the classroom space and some of the teachers.

The students’ days began at 7:30 a.m., when teacher Jeremy Howland had them run exercises in their heads. “Bada-bing,” Howland said whenever they were right.

Students learned to apply that knowledge in coding, data analysis, robotics and elementary electrical engineering classes.

It’s not just a good deed that Northeastern is doing. Some of the graduates of Bridge to Calculus end up enrolling there and proceeding to its highly ranked computer science and engineering programs, which — like those at other U.S. universities — struggle to attract homegrown talent.

These American high school students said they get why their classmates don’t like math.

“It’s a struggle. It’s constant thinking,” said Steven Ramos, 16, who said he plans to become a computer or electrical engineer instead of following his brother and other relatives into construction work.

But with time, the answers come into focus, said Wintana Tewolde, also 16, who wants to be a doctor. “It’s not easy to understand, but once you do, you see it.”

Peter St. Louis-Severe, 17, said math, to him, is fun. “It’s the only subject I can truly understand, because most of the time it has only one answer,” said St. Louis-Severe, who hopes to be a mechanical or chemical engineer.

Not everyone is convinced that a lack of math skills is holding America back.

What employers really want “is trainability, the aptitude of people being able to learn the systems and solve problems,” said Todd Thibodeaux, president and CEO of CompTIA, an information technology trade association. Other countries, he said, “are dying for the way our kids learn creativity.”

Back in class, the students fielded Howland’s questions about polynomial functions. And after an occasional stumble, they got all the exercises right.

“Bada-bing,” their teacher happily responded.


The Associated Press education team receives support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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America’s poor math skills raise alarms over global competitiveness