What do Americans have against math?


Irony seems to flourish in tough times.

In a week in which the stock market is schooling us on the power of subtraction, comes a study today that says Americans have no respect for math.

The study in the Notices of the American Mathematic Society says the United States fails to encourage its students in math, fails to identify and encourage kids who could become the world’s top scientists and engineers, and the few girls that do succeed are almost all immigrants or the daughters of immigrants from countries that don’t consider math experts “nerds.”


The study said tests designed to identify math-gifted kids identified “bright” kids, but not necessarily mathematically-gifted ones. And it said the tests filtered out kids with math ability if they were poor… or, as the study said, “(students)who lacked one or more of the socio-economically privileged environmental factors necessary to be recognized by this mechanism.”

China. Romania. Russia. Korea. The list of the brightest kids in math in the United States were actually the children with roots in those countries.

U.S. kids are not taught to write “rigorous essay-style proofs,” the study said, and it seemed to suggest the only decent math being taught is at “math camps,” which won’t get you a prom date in our culture.

When asked why, a typical response is, “Only Asians and nerds do math extracurricularly).” In other words, it is deemed uncool within the social context of USA middle and high schools to do mathematics for fun; doing so can lead to social ostracism. Consequently, gifted girls, even more so than boys, usually camouflage their mathematical talent to fit in well with their peers.

Every parent in America could change this starting today. Why don’t we want to?

(Photo: Getty Images)

  • The problem is our culture, obviously. We have consistently reinforced the belief that if you get along, go-along you’ll do well but if you’re too smart you’re a threat of some kind. There was some hope during the brighter daze of the Tech Bubble that there might be a rising “Nerd Chic”, but it faded into Britney easily enough.

    The message is a simple one to kids: to be popular is to not stand out too much. The smart life is a lonely life. That goes on into the great High School of life where people increasingly make careers based on who they know through their extended network, and popularity becomes the key to success.

    Perhaps the current situation will wake people up and smart will seem a whole lot sexier. We’ll just have to see.

  • Anna

    Speaking as a math chic, I find this article very sad but true. I was lucky enough to go to a fabulous high school where calculus 2 was taught. I graduated with about 55 other students who took calc 2 as seniors.

    It became a tradition, that the calc 2 students were given long sleeve t-shirts with equations on the arms to wear on test days. It was often the only “notes” we could use and therefore we had to wear them. But it also represented a source of nerdy pride.

    However, like the article states above, doing math as an extra-curricular was taking it too far. Only the “real nerds” joined math club, although we all would host calc parties to study and work on homework. I have kept in touch with a few of my classmates, some are doing great things at NASA or studying robotics at Brown.

    Even as a math major, I agree that females were not encouraged to pursue any further education in mathematics unless it was to teach highschool math. Unfortunately, America still has a long way to go in eliminating the feeling of a glass ceiling and sexism within the educational system.

  • brian

    One of my goals in life is to work to fix this.

    I think one of the problems is you don’t get to the amazing things in Math in High School. You don’t talk about higher dimmensions or fractals or chaos or ways to model the financial collapse. You talk about poynomials and the quadratic formula and the distributive property. Those things are important, and needed to fully understand the interesting things, but that doesn’t mean we can’t talk about the interesting things while learning the less interesting things.

  • I did well in math in school and today have a career that relies on math as a foundation. I never felt “uncool” because I liked math and was good at it. It’s probably because there were enough other people who were like me and we didn’t care what other people thought. Perhaps this is just as much of a question of self-confidence as it is about fighting the “uncoolness” of math. Maybe parents should focus first on making sure their kids are well-grounded in their own personality before worrying about what should or should not be cool.

    That being said, I hope my daughter (3 yrs) enjoys math as much as I do. It is my desire to instill a curiosity inside of her to understand how the world works. Whether or not she uses that curiosity to enjoy or excel in math is up to her. Either way, I think my parental plan ends up being in line with Bob’s suggestion of “every parent changing this starting today”. I just don’t think I’ll be focusing on math specifically. I just want my daughter to be confident and have a natural curiosity of the world.

  • I’m a proud member of the AWHM (American who hate math) organization, local chapter.

    The problem is that we are taught algebra and geometry in high school and college, and then never use it again. Meanwhile, we can’t make a budget for ourselves or figure out 30% off a pair of jeans. We aren’t taught the important, useful bits of math.

    As for the “nerd” thing — nerds are no longer looked down upon. I’m not saying every kid wants to be one, but it’s not as big of a deal as it was even 10 years ago.

  • bsimon

    Bob asks

    “What do Americans have against math?”

    Stacia responds

    “The problem is that we are taught algebra and geometry in high school and college, and then never use it again. Meanwhile, we can’t make a budget for ourselves or figure out 30% off a pair of jeans. We aren’t taught the important, useful bits of math.”

    There’s a basic disconnect there. Stacia, algebra and geometry ARE the useful bits of math.

    Algebra, wherein the student learns how changing variables in an equation changes the outcome is useful for understanding how, for instance, changing an interest rate on a loan has an effect on one’s monthly payment, or the term of the loan.

  • @bsimon Apparently you had much better teachers than I did because I never learned how to figure out simple percentages in any of my algebra or geometry classes.

  • brian


    I definately agree that our countries math teachers need to be part of the solution.

    But I think the fact that a large number of americans are “members” of AWHM is more of what’s to blame. Why is it ok to hate math? I’ve had bad teachers in lots of subjects, but I don’t hate those subjects.

  • Desi Derata

    Perhaps having this guy travel to all our schools would help…


    When I was in high school, my pre-calc teacher refused to help me with a formula I was having some difficulty with and he went to the principal and asked to have me removed from class, because girls didn’t belong in math…

    Never took another course

  • Tonya

    I think part of the problem is that to be proficient in math and get to the “fun parts”, you have to constantly train yourself in the basic, rote parts. Personally, I was pretty good at math. I was highly encouraged by my math teacher in high school, and the joint curriculum between our Chemistry class, Physics class, and math department made me really interested in following that path. However, I was enticed away by the dreams of being a star, and chose a theatre degree in college. After I realized that doesn’t pay money to most people, I went back to get a second degree in math, working towards chaos theory and string theory, things that I thought were fun AND would get me a good career. However, due to the time lapse in my education, my brain had becomed untrained in the basic structures that were required to pass the college level courses. While focusing on the basics is important, to produce people proficient in math and science, we need to make those “fun” aspects more evident early on, while changing the curriculum to minimize the impact of “breaks” in education.

  • I did poorly in math. Because I was otherwise “bright” my parents didn’t seem concerned. Like many kids my age learning about math seemed superflous — somehow computers and calculators would take care of it. In my second year in accounting I discovered that I needed to understand problems before the calculator could be of any use.

    It’s not surprising that outsourcing or off-shoring has become so common. This attitude that others (people or machines) would figure out problems have cost many jobs here.

  • Chris

    In 3rd grade my daughter had a math teacher that just about, I think, changed her whole life. In 1st and 2nd grade my daughter really seemed to struggle in math–she would cry and get frustrated and come home with papers full of red pen. Her 3rd grade math teacher taught the students how to think and how to attack problems. She showed them card tricks and other games with numbers. My daughter started talking about what her math teacher had taught them each day in class, and I could hear her thinking out loud in her room while working on math homework. Very quickly my daughter was put into an advanced math class and continues in it this year in 4th grade. It is challenging, but she does not complain. She says she wants to be a banker someday–because she likes pinstripe shirts and suits! A good way for a girl to combine her new love of math and her ongoing love of fashion!

  • Teresa

    Brian, you said,

    “One of my goals in life is to work to fix this.”

    I’d love to hear more about that, as I am just now starting graduate school and this is my current primary focus of interest.

    Why is the US so interested in saying “math is hard” and “I hate math”?

  • Alison

    Stacia – I’d be shocked if you weren’t taught percentages and fractions numerous times. I’ve taught math. This stuff is reviewed repeatedly.

    A few other general observations:

    The problem is that math looks too much like work for lazy Americans. And it’s not just math, it’s reading and history and science too. There’s so much emphasis in education to make class as entertaining as the round the clock media that kids see. Guess what, learning takes work, a tough lesson many parents and teachers don’t teach because they are afraid they’ll lose the kids.

    Kids ask, ‘When will I use this?’ I have an answer for you. I am not on the career path I set out for when I graduated from college, let alone when I sat in a high school desk. I have a passion for what I do now, but I could not have known this job existed when I was in high school. I’m in my thirties and every month I learn of exciting jobs that I did not know existed. I used geometry and trig 2 weeks ago. I didn’t remember every formula, but I knew where to look and how to use them when I found them. You can’t know where your career path will lead. Prepare yourself for anything. When you stumble on your dream job you may be ready for it.