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I'm a college student in China, and most of the students around us are tired of study.

From the primary school, they were asked to study but willing to. I think this emotion played a great role in our education system. they are used to hate being forced to do something, and then hate study.

And the Chinese family are trying to do help for their kids as much as possible, this leads to our lacking of innovation and independence. A lot of us are willing to lead a lazy life.

Jeff V.

Unfortunately, I think both of your posts miss the mark somewhat.

Becker claims that American colleges are better at teaching math and science than our high schools. As someone who has recently been to college (and had many friends undergo the same experience), I can tell you that this is patently false. Most colleges do not require students to take much math or science; what requirements exist can usually be satisfied by easy classes that are geared towards non-science types (at Duke, two of the biggies were the biology of dinosaurs and astronomy).

The sad fact of life at most American colleges today is that the liberal arts method of education is simply not that challenging. Students who do not major in science, engineering, or math can expect a very, very easy four years. While I do think liberal arts majors learn analytical and writing skills that may be valuable, I think such skills could be augmented by other, more practical skills (economic analysis, scientific knowledge, etc).

Posner claims that further increasing the math education won't help most workers, since most jobs don't require math. This is a strange comment---entire sectors of our economy require math-skilled workers (accounting, financial services, IT, etc.).

Also, both of you are missing the real secrets to the American ability to accumulate human capital. There are two. First, America's ability to educate the average student is horrible, but our top students are faced with a wealth of educational possibilities. Perhaps this isn't quite as bad of a predicament as some might think, given that the globalized economy seems to require less semi-skilled jobs while creating more opportunities for those at the very top of the food chain. Second, America builds capital by attacting the best-educated, most ambitious foreign citizens. I would like to see a study that analyzes this phenomenon. Why does America attract these workers? Is it our political system? The higher wages that can be earned in our stronger economy? Or is it do to some "soft factors," such as cultural pluralism, tolerance, etc.?


Great post. Would love to hear more of your thoughts.

Michael Sinkinson

Have any studies examined the SAT scores of foreigners versus Americans? Both SAT I and II subject test scores contain a wealth of information. It seems like the SAT would be a good measure because it is not intended to test memorized knowledge, but instead actual problem-solving skills. One would have to control for the fact that since not all foreigners write the SAT, but all American students do, you would naturally expect higher scores from foreigners. Perhaps by controlling for the universities applied to, one could get a better picture of the relative levels of eduction.


The other important factor your post may want to include in the analysis is that the US systems gives people second and third and even more chances. In most countries if a child does poorly at age 12 that is it as far as advanced education, but in the US people have chances to overcome early failure and reenter the upper education system.


What fraction of the population needs really strong mathematical skills for economic development? Is the expression "economic development" appropriate if the very wealthy get it all?

Are test scores of 15 year olds a leading or trailing indicator of economic performance? If leading, how much? Does performance on a test set by one's instructors measure performance in communications skills with one's peers?



Teaching someone how to learn on one's own, and providing the public resources (at low cost) to access learning tools could be the greatest source of productivity that we could develop in the US. When my daughter went to Caltech, after having been valedectorian at her high school with a good memory, she was thrown in the water over her head--she, like everyone else, basically had to learn on her own, or collaborate with others to learn. At the end of the experience, today, she learns on her own, completing a degree in pathology--if there is a problem to be solved, she says, give me the book (or she goes to the internet for additional materials) and learns on her own, confident she can do it.
I go to graduate school internet sites for courses I have an interest in, see what the reading lists are, and look for the professors notes on the sites, and download any articles that are on the internet. Self learning, and making the resources available for persons to self-learn, could be the way to lower the entry costs for learning, and make learning a continuing process for everyone. You do not need to be in school, paying high tuitions, to learn.
But, you do need to know some tools, math included. Try as you might, you may have some difficulty doing third semester integral calculus or understand some game theory notation on your own. So, I don't agree about the statements math isn't important...math (including stats) and English are the vocubulary that will enable you to learn on your own. So, if we can imagine a world in which the barriers to learning (attending a physical lecture hall, etc.) drop, it is more important, not less, to have the tools to learn on one's own.


Ahh, the "Prols and Plebes" who needs them in the "New Economy and Civilization"? Don't you all know that we can now all become the politicians, bankers, CEO's, CFO's, and Acronym anythings. Edison, Ford, Morgan and the like are probably rolling over in their graves.


> This is a strange comment---entire sectors of our economy require math-skilled workers (accounting, financial services, IT, etc.).


Let's not confuse the mechanics of math for the thought process. Of course one can do many things with an excel spreadsheet. You might also say you can do it with Mathematica as well.
But, do what. You first have to understand mathematical core of a problem before you can apply mechanistic computational "software" machines to the problem.
It is true that much of what one does everyday you probably have been trained to do on the job. But, the problem I find is trying to introduce a manager to something new--and, boy is it difficult to explain how evolutionary computing techniques could be used (evolutionary what?) to solve a problem, or how combinatorial auction could be used to solve an alloction problem, or how game theory could be used in responding to an rfp. Managers who have little or no understanding of math are poor receptors of new ideas that require their understanding of math to be comfortable with it. True, they can do the linear regression on some variables to predict demand--they were taught that on the job or in their marketing class--but just try to introduce something new to them if any of the newness requires math. Good luck. No productivity change there, I can assure you.


>You first have to understand mathematical core of a problem before you can apply mechanistic computational "software" machines to the problem.

See I think it is probably the opposite - to do the majority of productive work out there (for instance in finance) you want to know less math and more "softer" areas. Staying with linear regression, it is much more important to have a sense of how to set up the test - what variables are important, the order they should be eliminated, what is good data versus bad - than the eigenvectors that underline the actual math process. Most people I've met who do very interesting things with LR know little of eigenvectors or even what is really going on with R-squared, and that's perfectly reasonable I believe even though that's the "core" of the process.

>but just try to introduce something new to them if any of the newness requires math.

I'm not sure how you would proceed. The stuff you bring up (combinatorial auction, etc.) isn't even usually covered in many undergraduate degree programs in computer science or math - it would require a near graduate level of education in that realm to "be comfortable with it", and more importantly, being comfortable would in no way determine whether or not it was a good solution. There's a reason investment banks have layers of people with different levels of skill to bring the ideas of the quants out to the trading floor - the pure math doesn't always work, and often isn't applicable.


A lot of talk of Linear Regression analysis here. That's just one of the curves that explains phenomena. But the coefficient of determination sets how close the curve fits the data and a linear function can put you way out in left field. I really hate it when answers come back to the nth decimal place, when the nearest 100 lbs. would suffice. All the computer computation time is destroying the project budget and doing it by long hand would have been simpler and cheaper or using just a simple rule of thumb. ;)


"One of the challenging paradoxes during the past several decades is that American teenagers have consistently performed below average on international tests in math and sciences, and not especially well on reading tests, yet the American economy is more productive than any other."

- in addition to this, there has also been a rise in inequality in the US. The US has some of the best universities in the world, but there are wide gaps between the elite vs. the poor. Could it be that the small elite of the US system are creating all the innovation and productivity gains while the average poor are not?

Huang Lechuan

I think this discussion is missing the point here. Professor Becker's argument is that disappointing results in the internationl math and science tests indicate that American education is somehow inferior. He goes on to explain why even this is true, the U.S. is still doing better economically. He seems to say that the tests fail to capture the whole picture of American education.
I agree; but I think the tests almost fail to capture anything at all, because they involve only a tiny fraction of educated teenagers, and when we talk about economy we actually talk about the entire work force. Therefore the results of the tests cannot be an indicator of the quality of a country's education (especially when you take into account how these teenager contestants are actually trained).
What is more, these tests do not even predict the future of the very contestants well. Teenagers who do well in these tests, because of the excessive training, often lack necessary social skills, and some become even mentally unfit for a normal life. We Chinese people have been thinking a lot since the hope we had placed on "young genii" failed.

I feel that the American education excels in its flexibility to supply the work force that fits the demand. I do not see the apparent benefits in forcing a potential carpenter to learn poetry, or forcing a potential poet to learn carpentry--people have preferences of their own, and the American education does a good job at keep them. I do not deny that there are benefits in forcing someone to study something he does not like, but these benefits can hardly justify the costs to society.

Bruce G Charlton

Comparative advantage

With the globalization of science, and higher level science education, by now well advanced; some of these international differences may be the basis of comparative advantage.

The US system of education has both big advantages and some disadvantages - one plausible disadvantage may be that it is not good at optimizing the modal average level of of achievement in the most quantitative disciplines.

If so, then the US will increasingly import mathematical expertize from big nations (such as China and India) who have educational systems which - although they may be inferior to the US in many respects - nonetheless produce very large numbers of people with a significantly higher level of mathemetical expertise.

Wang Yikai

1.Focusing on comprehension and cognition ability instead of math ability in the secondary school is beneficial to American education, since math and other kinds of special knowledge should be taught to those who want futher education in the certain field.
Special ability is only useful if people work on some fields, while comprehension and cognition ability is crucial for every individual.

2.However, the basic scientific knowledge should be provided in the secondary school, to help every individual form a correct picture about the world, since many people do not take further education. Obviously, Americans have not done well in this aspect.

D Gould

In the US, students know that theres international comparison tests have no impact on them individually. In many other countries, it's a matter of national pride.

Perhaps US students are just as proficient as other students at math, but we've demonstrated that American kids are more rational by not wasting their time.


Prof Becker does make a valid point. That end-school scores have very limited relevance to one's mental make-up, aptitude for facign higher challenges in life and being innovative.

One would see 99% scores in the Indian School System examinations. But the highly scoring individuals do not invariabley fare better in their latter life. The cramming system which helps them get very high scores does not come to their rescue where more analytical and practice-oriented problems are posed. If the American children are better equipped in a relaxed educational atmosphere, it should be really good.

All children cannot perform equally. The talk about cut-off marks, added to a very high percentage of seats reserved for beneficiaries of 'affirmative action' drives children in India to burden themselves with mutfarious techniques for scoring high. This is a very despicable system of education to say the least. All the school load weighs more than the university level load where the education is more relaxed, more socially oriented in the form of cultural meets etc., Such a system, with the possible exception of a few elite schools of excllence like colleges of engineering, management and technology, is groaning under great strain and the earlier the government realises it the better for the entire education business of today.



My daughter (8 years old) scored almost at the tenth grade Math level on an Educational Psychology exam adminstered by the most renowned Ed Psych professional in my region.

When I sought instruction at her public school above her grade level I initially met a brick wall (brick and mortar my taxes pay for).

When I called, educational attorneys, my congress person, and other parents of high achieving kids, I was told private school is my only option.

I believe public education is the right place for our country to place its hopes for the future.

Which politician in my area (Colorado) would sponsor a referendum to create programming for accelerated Math, Science, and Technology in the public schools?


Bob, They used to have such programs in all fifty States. I know for a fact that most killed off the trade/technology programs in the 70's and 80's. Don't need them any more they cost and besides, all we need are "Doctors, Lawyers and Injun Chiefs". As for the other programs, they cost too.


We have Ken Salazar in Colorado. I actually voted for him. He's a Dem and representatives I contacted were Repub. I have no partisan bias. I'll see if I can contact Ken. If anything comes of it, I'll try to post here again.


Oh, wow! US economy is more productive. It could not be related to the fact that in US I can fire you for being 1 minute late to work. Or for not completing assigned task even though it would require you to work 60 hours a week and you are not eligible for overtime - not double pay for overtime, *any* compensation for overtime. Or if it required you to work 80 hours a week. Or - come to think of it - 120. Or - why not 140? How can it be not the most productive in the world if the amount of protection from predatory employer you get is the least in the world - as in, *zero*.


I went to our high school in the north shore of Chicago last night for parent's night. Based on that, it would be hard for me to say these kids could be worked any harder. I told them afterwards they'll have an easier time in college. I really feel bad for them. They are taking several honors level courses. I can't believe the amount and type of homework they get.
On top of that, the after school activities.
Also, I'm a middle aged male and went back to our local community college for their professional accounting program which I'm completing now. I've already taken most of the CPA exams. The instruction was for the most part more than adequate. The courses couldn't be much different than what is taught at the normal university level. In fact, there were U of Illinois accounting graduates in some of them accumulating credits to meet the CPA academic requirements. And they weren't the high scorers. My frame of reference is that of a ex doctoral student in economics at a midwest state university who passed their doctoral theory. prelims 30 years ago.

Peter Bernstein

Professors Becker and Posner:

I'm interested in your opinions regarding policies that toughen the requirements for receiving a high school diploma. The trade-off appears to be between more graduates with a less valuable degree vs. fewer graduates with a more valuable degree.

Furthermore, there is the argument that if degree requirements are raised, students will raise their performance in response, so that the decline in HS graduates may be much smaller than feared by opponents.

Finally, do you see any connection -- ecoomically or logically -- with the impacts of minimum wage laws? Like a minimum wage, tougher HS requirements displace some people from the market competition but do so by providing a greater value to those who "win." And, if tougher HS degree requirments act to raise academic performance (if), would not a higher minimum wage act to raise work performance?


Americans are far more patient than people I see in my country. They can spend years doing something that they're really willing to do and committed to, say running a local cafeteria, or helping the community. I believe there's a deep difference of philosophy of life underneath as to what is happiness in life. Living comfortably would be definitely the ultimate goal in China for most people; but Americans seem to know how to lead a fulfilling life. The reason for this kind of difference, I believe, has something to do with religion. Even ordinary citizens can learn a lot from religious activities and be educated; not so in China. We used to have a good chance of stepping toward that way, but it was eliminated instantly...

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