Let’s get back to worksheets

By Bill Costello

The U.S. is falling behind the world in math. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, “We are lagging the rest of the world, and we are lagging it in pretty substantial ways.”

A special analysis put out by the National Center for Education Statistics found that the math performance of U.S. high schoolers was in the bottom quarter of the countries that participated in the most recent Program for International Student Assessment.

Results of the 2009 ACT and SAT show that U.S. students are no better in math this year than they were last year. Math performance has improved in other countries while it has remained stagnant in the U.S.

These findings are disturbing in an increasingly global economy where careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are becoming progressively more important for nations to compete internationally.

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the proportion of students obtaining STEM degrees from U.S. universities has dropped from 32% to 27% over the past decade. At the same time, the percentage of non-U.S. students earning these degrees from U.S. universities has increased dramatically.

In "The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century," Thomas Friedman argues that getting more Americans to pursue careers in STEM fields is critical to the future of our nation’s economy. Friedman is not alone in his opinion.

The National Science Foundation reports that non-U.S. graduates from U.S. universities accounted for more than half of the doctorate recipients in physics (58%), computer sciences (65%), engineering (68%), and mathematics (57%). The most numerous of these non-U.S. graduates were from China, India, and South Korea. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that over 40% of non-U.S. doctoral degree recipients intended to leave the U.S.

Not only are we losing ground to non-U.S. citizens at our own universities, but we’re also falling behind other nations. The U.S. is no longer the leader in STEM education. In absolute numbers, Japan and China are producing more graduates. Our rate of STEM to non-STEM graduates is roughly 17% while the international average is nearly 26%. We’re not even keeping pace with some developing countries.

President Barack Obama has acknowledged that other countries—especially Asian countries—are performing better in math than the U.S. How does he plan to prevent us from falling farther behind?

In the U.S., we used to focus on basic computation skills when we taught students traditional math. Ever since the U.S. National Council of Teachers of Mathematics developed standards for school math in 1989, many U.S. schools starting teaching reform math.

Recently, I visited schools in Japan and Taiwan. I found they’re teaching math the way we used to teach it; they’re focusing on basic computation skills. Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea—all top performers in math—are also focusing on the basics. Even the cram schools, which are prevalent in Asia, focus on the basics.

The largest and most established cram school in Asia is Kumon. I visited their head office in Tokyo to interview public relations executives Mayu Katata and Shinichiro Iwasaki about the Kumon Method. In a nutshell, they focus on using worksheets to help students master basic computation skills.

Traditional math emphasizes basic computation skills and algorithms that lead to the correct answer while reform math places more value on the thinking process that leads to any answer.

Both of these skills are needed. However, the major problem with reform math is that it puts the cart before the horse by trying to teach students abstract concepts of math before they have built strong foundational skills. With traditional math, students often work individually on worksheets. With reform math, they often work in groups cutting, pasting and coloring.

Sure, worksheets and algorithms are boring compared to gluing stuff and explaining how you came up with an answer that may not even be correct, but which method will better prepare our students to compete in an increasingly global economy?

America, let’s get back to worksheets.

Bill Costello, M.Ed., is an education columnist and blogger. He can be reached at

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I'm so tired of this one sided argument. Sure The Asian countries do better on standard math tests because the study by rote and for exams, when you take that away and change the test to more lateral thinking then the scores drop. I don't feel that we have to be going to school just studying for exams like they do in Asia I don't see the benefit if you cant think outside the box and most Asians cant.

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I'm not surprised the ratio of STEM to non-STEM is so low. Think about all the lawyers the US needs for it's legal system...

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40% of non-U.S. doctoral degree recipients intended to leave the U.S.

Which means 60% stay in the US. Pretty good in my opinion.

Our rate of STEM to non-STEM graduates is roughly 17% while the international average is nearly 26%. We’re not even keeping pace with some developing countries.

Are they implying that China and India are developing countries? the 60% that stay in the states make up for the 9% shortfall in the other stats. There is more to life then just STEM degrees. MBA's Doctors, Lawyers and even more lawyers.

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Take the calculators out of the classroom until junior (3rd) year in college. Calc can trig can both be learned and taught without calculators. My class was the last class in high school to be taught calculus without calculators. I thought they were a blessing but as I got my first job at K-Mart years ago and none of the other cashiers could figure out a basic % off, I was just stunned.

I agree with some of the article, but agree with rgetty as well. I was nearly a year behind in my math skills in elementary, but my mom had me drill every single day when I came home. Geez I hated that, but when I look at something and can compute it in my head faster than someone can pick up a calculator I sit back and have to thank my mother for making me do exactly that.

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when you take that away and change the test to more lateral thinking >then the scores drop.

How do you explain the high percentage of Asian students going to the US and succeeding in the top universities? They shouldn't be able to, according to you...

The way they teach math now is ridiculous. I admittedly don't know all the details as I've been out of the US for a long time now, but I was surprised at calculators in classrooms from elementary school. The kids are totally dependent on them. The kids in high school now can't do long division with a pencil and paper. My niece's school had the kids make robots for math class. Thing is, they didn't actually have to work (!!)they just had to make them. Is it math class or art class? She got a B+ for making a construction paper robot that fitted over a remote controlled car, she drove it around the classroom. Where's the math? If this BS is any indication of what they teach overall, it's no wonder test scores are down.

I love the description of this textbook, used to teach reform math until discontinued by 2007. What I wonder is, how do teachers teaching this method have any idea if the student's problem-solving methods are practical? See the below bibble-babble--

" The standard method for multi-digit multiplication is not presented until 6th grade, and then only as an example of how it is error-prone. Instead a Russian peasants' algorithm for calculating 13 x 18 = 234 is favored. By cutting and pasting various strips of paper, it can be solved by simply using 3 divisions, 3 multiplications, a cancellation, and an addition of three numbers.

Sixth graders are asked to solve following problem:

"I just checked out a library book that is 1,344 pages long! The book is due in 3 weeks. How many pages will I need to read a day to finish the book in time?"

Long division is not used to divide 1,344 by 21. Instead, the curriculum guide explains that "division in MathLand is not a separate operation to master, but rather a combination of successive approximations, multiplication, adding up and subtracting back, all held together with the students' own number sense." "

Great, but how fast can you do this in a work situation? How do you work with others if everyone's basic 'number sense' requires different methods? They end up using a calculator anyway....what good was all this?

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Link to textbook page, sorry to have omitted it above.

And---have they done the wonderful reform of teaching English as well? Niece and friends also can't spell for the life of them, and neither can many on the internet. It seems to be those younger or so? Haven't tabulated it, but there seems to be an age-based dividing line between those who can use loose and lose properly, 'bare' and 'bear' (I see 'bare with me' a lot) and spell definitely and 'per se' correctly. I've often wondered why.

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my daughter could do her multiplication tables in 2nd grade by using the Japanese "ku ku" multiplication chant. Sure, it is memorization first, but then once it is put into PRACTICAL use, it becomes a skill. Initially most anything you learn is MEMORIZATION until you master it for practical application.

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"The U.S. is falling behind the world in math"

And yet no other country has put people on the moon since the U.S. did it 40 years ago.

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Since when did we stop using worksheets? I call bull.

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"With reform math, they often work in groups cutting, pasting and coloring"

Dang, I wish I'd had reform math in school! All I had was boring old algebra, geometry and trigonometry.

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Sarge, No one has seen the benefit of putting people on the moon cause they could do the math.

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Since when did we stop using worksheets? I call bull.

This. I doubt math education has changed that much. This article sounds like a strawman argument.

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Hmmm, I honestly don't know what to make of this argument. Gluing, cutting, and pasting to learn math? I've never heard of that before, unless we're talking pre-school. (shrug) I currently reside in Hawaii, and here the math is taught in a very traditional (for lack of a better word) fashion, with the use of worksheets and other aids. My only gripe is the rate at which it (and other subjects as well) are taught, which is much too fast, in my opinion. It seems like a whole week hasn't gone by before new concepts are introduced, without making sure the students have fully grasped previous ones. Times are financially tough for my family, and even though I feel that my return to the workforce would help out, my husband often reminds me that being a stay at home mother helps as it ensures I can spend more time with my children, going over subjects with them so that they can get develop a solid understanding of what they are being taught in school. It's a sacrifice now, but hopefully one that will reap rewards later.

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