Math: Singapore vs US

By Shlomo Maital

    “Across the U.S., the average math score for fourth-graders fell 5 points since 2019, while the score for eighth-graders dropped 8 points. In reading, average scores for both grades fell 3 points. In addition, the shares of students below the “basic” level – the lowest level of academic achievement – grew”. 

    Perhaps there is more to worry about in the US than just the fractured democracy.  Math is crucial.  Here is why.

    Just after Singapore gained independence, in 1965, founding President Lee Kwan Yew spoke to Singapore’s mothers. “Tell your kids to study math”, he counseled.  Why?  If kids took math, they could study engineering in college. If they studied engineering, Singapore would have a cadre of talented engineers. If it did, it could invite Intel and other hi-tech companies to build factories. If they did – Singapore would become wealthy.

    And it happened – just like that. The mothers came through. Singapore’s GDP per capita is $73,000 today.  Believe it or not – a little higher than that of the US!

    Why did US math scores plummet?  The blame is not solely with the COVID lockdown and ZOOM instruction. Math scores were falling even before 2020.  The US (and my country, Israel) have a basic problem in how math is taught. 

    The US is heading into a dark confrontation with Russia and China.  The real battlefield will not be defense budgets alone, but technology.  And the US, like Singapore, needs high school grads who know math well enough to study engineering.  Lots of them. 

   JFK’s decision to put a man on the moon inspired millions of young Americans to study math, in preparation for careers in science. 

    Today, as America chooses to return to the moon,  will there be sufficient talent to make it happen?