Thursday, October 19, 2006

Happy mathematicians = lower achievement

From Tuesday's USA Today:

All you need is love ... unless you're doing algebra. Then you need to work it on out.

That's the take-away message from a new study with an unusual finding: The more kids like math and say they do well in it, the less likely they are to do well. (emphasis added)

The study, being released Wednesday by the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, finds the starkest difference among eighth-graders around the world who were asked if they enjoy math.

The 10 "happiest" nations all performed below the international average. The 10 "unhappiest" all scored above average, including Sweden, England, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and the Netherlands.

U.S. eighth-graders fell somewhere in the middle and followed the same pattern. They were slightly unhappier in math than the average 13-year-old, but they performed a bit better than average.

The happiness factor plays a minimal role in math achievement for millions of children, says study author Tom Loveless, who calls the difference in scores "huge" between the happiest and unhappiest nations.

The data suggest simply making math relevant and enjoyable isn't enough, he says. "If we want the United States to be high-achieving and among the world's best nations, obviously we have to do something beyond that."

The findings come as educators fret about math and science skills and five weeks after the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics urged elementary and middle schools to take a more back-to-basics approach.

Such changes have been long sought by traditionalists but criticized by those who say kids must learn creative problem-solving as well as nuts-and-bolts arithmetic, algebra and calculus.

Click here to read the full Brookings Institution / Brown Center on Education Policy report (pdf document).

For schools like JIS, which are in the process of evaluating elementary math curricula, this research may provide guidance on the question of whether "student happiness" should be considered as an important factor in the decision-making process. Based on this report, the answer seems to be a qualified no.

But it's a complicated issue. Here's some of the analysis that's begun to flow in on this counter-intuitive report:
UPDATE: Jay Matthews takes a deeper look at Lovelace's analysis in this Oct. 24 article in the Washington Post.


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