A new study is out showing that the US is failing to educate and encourage girls with the highest level math abilities. The study uses the Putnam, International Math Olympiad, and US Math Olympiad as measures, so it's not comprehensive, but the make-up of the high scorers on these exams is certainly an indication of (lack of) encouragement to enter the exams which is part of what the study is concerned with. The study found few US women entrants and most were found to be immigrants or children of immigrants from countries where math is more highly valued.
I admit that my first reaction to the idea that the US doesn't value math skill highly was incredulousness. After all, men tend to dominate highly valued academic fields and men certainly dominate math. Also, when I was a middle school math teacher I received far more calls from parents worried about their child's progress than did my English or Science counterparts. Yet, I also became used to the standard response when I mentioned my profession - "I always hated middle school, and I was always bad at math." Can you imagine a reading teacher in a similar situation being told "I was always bad at reading?" Many math teachers are encouraged (or forced) to incorporate applications into their curriculum. Don't get me wrong, I see the importance of this, but can you imagine a reading teacher being told never to have the children read fiction because they won't see the relevance of learning to read? The desire for application-only math education and the belief that it's normal to be "bad at math" are both signs of the US failing to educate its citizens. That this failing impacts the math elite as well underscores the direness of the situation.
(See Herbert's column or the NY Times article for more on this study.)
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