America’s lagging mathematics performance reflects a basic failure to understand the benefits of adapting the curriculum to meet the varying instructional needs of students.
Curricular differentiation might, for its part, exacerbate test-score gaps between moderate and high performers, if high performers move ahead more quickly. A narrow-minded focus on the magnitude of the gap, however, can lead to scenarios where the gap is closed primarily by worsening the performance of high-achieving students—bringing the top down—without raising the performance of low-achieving students. Society’s goal should be to improve the status of low-performing students in absolute terms, not just relative to that of their higher-performing peers. A growing body of evidence suggests that this type of improvement is best achieved by sorting students, even at a young age, into relatively homogenous groups, to better enable curricular specialization.
Rather than wish differences among students away, a rational policy for the 21st century will respond to those variations, tailoring lessons to children’s needs. This strategy promises to provide the next generation of prospective scientists and engineers with the training they need to create jobs, and the next generation of workers with the skills they need to qualify for them.
Fluctuations in this indicator over time support a basic argument: American attempts to homogenize the math curriculum in secondary schools, although sometimes successful at improving the performance of the average student, have come at the cost of preparing the nation’s most promising students for mathematically intensive study.
Between 1972 and 2011, real GDP per capita doubled in the U.S., but the average math SAT score of college-bound high-school seniors and the proportion of college graduates majoring in a mathematically intensive subject barely budged.
In the early 20th century, American high-school students were starkly divided, with rigorous math courses restricted to a college-bound elite. At midcentury, the “new math” movement sought, unsuccessfully, to bring rigor to the masses, and subsequent egalitarian impulses led to new reforms that promised to improve the skills of lower-performing students.
While reformers assumed that higher-performing students would not be harmed in the process, evidence suggests that the dramatic watering down of curricular standards since that time has made our top performers worse-off.
SOLUTION FOR CHICAGO DISTRICT: Recently published results from policies such as Chicago’s “double dose” of algebra, which groups students homogeneously and increases instructional time for lower-skilled math students (see “A Double Dose of Algebra,” research, Winter 2013), support differentiation as the best way to promote higher achievement among all students.
In the name of preparing more of the workforce to take those jobs, we have harmed the skills of those who might have created them. Although there is some evidence of a payoff from this sacrifice, in the form of marginally better performance among average students, some of the strategies used to help these students have in fact backfired.
To some extent, the nation has reduced the costs of this movement through immigration. Foreign students account for more than half of all doctorate recipients in science and engineering, two-thirds of those in engineering. Many of these degree recipients leave the country when they finish, however, limiting their potential benefit to native-born Americans.
Jacob Vigdor is professor of public policy and economics at Duke University.