Thursday, August 06, 2015
The Math Olympiad and math education
Every year, various nations gather to compete in the International Math Olympiad. This summer, the US team won for the first time in 21 years. It was certainly cause for celebration, though the headline on the Christian Science Monitor story caught my eye: "US wins Math Olympiad for the first time in 21 years. Is math education improving?" Well, maybe. Broad measures still put the US pretty much in the middle of the pack as far as international math comparisons go. What may be happening is that the US does what it does very well in many other international competitions (like the athletic summer Olympics). When the country does want to win something, it has a pretty amazing ability to pull together resources, including the best people and practices from around the world, and make it happen. It's wonderful that the U.S. might be treating its young mathematicians with the same nurturing focus that young athletes have long enjoyed. This is Gifted Exchange, and I'm glad that there are great opportunities for the most extremely talented young mathematicians. That is somewhat a different matter, though, from how mathematics is approached in your average school, where a 1-2 year acceleration is the most a gifted student can hope for. There's some evidence that elementary school teachers are often ill-prepared to teach math to their students, and their biases against it can drive promising people (particularly girls; all members of the winning US team were male) out of it. Being good at the top and being good all around need not be pitted against each other. But they do require slightly different things. Better math education more broadly requires teachers who know and love math, particularly in the early grades as children figure out what is exciting to study and what is not. People who know and love math, though, often have different and more well-paying options than teaching elementary school. It's a tough problem to solve.