“I’m bad at math” versus “I can succeed if I study hard”

Partnership for Learning writes,

The office of Superintendent of Public Instruction released results last week for the 2013 Annual Measurable Objectives (AMO) that showed little to no progress — and even some regression — for Washington state’s schools. The AMOs are part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) waiver that was reissued to the state in August.

Washington’s ESEA waiver issued by the US Department of Education requires the state to cut proficiency gaps in half for all students, and all subgroups, by 2017. The AMO results reported last week represent the second incremental step on the path to that goal. Last year marked first time AMOs were reported.

AMO results from last year (2011-12) to this year (2012-13) show limited progress in eliminating proficiency gaps. In a few subgroups, the gaps widened rather than narrowed.

They also note that the OECD’s Skills Outlook shows that U.S. adults are below the international average in math, reading and problem solving.

Economist Allison Schrager elaborates on the OECD report and the importance of math here. As she writes,

The challenge is getting American students and teachers to push themselves. We are quick to dismiss students as good or bad at math when it gets hard. But what students really need at that stage is more math classes, rather than an assumption they’ve reached a limit. The OECD also assesses student achievement in 70 different countries with its tri-annual Program for International Student Assessment study. Andreas Schleicher, who oversees the study, recently described how teenagers view success in different countries:

“North Americans tell you typically it’s all luck. ‘I’m born talented in mathematics, or I’m born less talented so I’ll study something else.’

“In Europe, it’s all about social heritage: ‘My father was a plumber so I’m going to be a plumber’.

“In China, more than nine out of 10 children tell you: ‘It depends on the effort I invest and I can succeed if I study hard.’

The study also examines the factors that increase resiliency in low-income students. Countries, for example, that have high fractions of high performing poor students include China and Korea. One factor that stands out in those places is more instruction. This is consistent with Goodman’s recent paper that found doubling the number of math classes for underperforming math students in Chicago public schools improved graduation and college completion rates. Extra classes were more effective than remedial classes or teaching advanced math earlier.

The difference between how North American and Chinese students talk about math success kills me. As Schrager concludes,

we also must rethink our approach to math, for all students—and discourage use of the expressions “good at math” or “bad at math.” They only serve as an excuse to underperform.