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The Stem Frenzy

In response to:

The Frenzy About High-Tech Talent from the July 9, 2015 issue

To the Editors:

In reviewing Amanda Ripley’s book The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way, Andrew Hacker [NYR, July 9] notes that American fifteen-year-olds did much less well on the 2012 PISA assessment of mathematics proficiency than those in many other countries, including Finland (ranked eighth). He observes that “schools and teachers get most of the blame.” The PISA results and other international test data are often used to attack unionization and tenure, and to support the charter school movement and other privatization schemes like vouchers.

Finland has a population of 5.4 million, 84 percent of whom live in urban areas. In this it is not so different from Massachusetts (6.7 million, 92 percent urban). As it happens, Massachusetts is one of three US states that elected to participate in PISA as an individual education system. (In order to obtain reliable state-level data, a larger sample must be tested than for national results.) The Massachusetts mean score in mathematics—from public school students only—is statistically not significantly different from that of Finland: 514 versus 519. Last September, Forbes published an article titled “If Massachusetts Were a Country, Its Students Would Rank 9th in the World.”

The PISA test is scaled so that the mean score among all test-takers is 500; the mean US score is 481. Florida also chose to administer the PISA test; its mean math score was 467, which would put it around thirty-seventh in the world. Data from other tests suggest that if every state administered the PISA, several northeastern and mid-Atlantic states would likely place in the top ranks, while several states of the deep South would place well below the world average.

These results imply that the national PISA results quoted by Mr. Hacker disguise a sectional problem. One might suspect that the low US scores are perhaps the result of racial and income inequality, a low-tax, small-government philosophy, and a regional culture that does not value public education. And perhaps the examples of Massachusetts and other high-achieving states like New Jersey and Maryland are more relevant to the American experience than that of Finland.

Joseph L. Ruby
Silver Spring, Maryland

To the Editors:

Laudably, Andrew Hacker’s article “The Frenzy for STEM Talent” [NYR, July 9] spreads the word that claims of STEM shortages have been debunked in Michael Teitelbaum’s book Falling Behind?: Boom, Bust, and the Global Race for Scientific Talent. Unfortunately, it includes some inaccurate statements.

Hacker states that a very large proportion of undergraduate mathematics classes are not taught by full-time professors and that this is a finding of a survey conducted by the American Mathematical Society. The American Mathematical Society does not conduct such surveys. However, the Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences does. Its 2010 survey found that 47 percent of course sections are taught by tenured, tenure-eligible, or permanent faculty. If high-school-level courses are excluded, this percentage rises. Unfortunately, a large proportion of undergraduates do take high-school-level mathematics courses. (See Tables S.2, S.4, and S.5 of Statistical Abstract of Undergraduate Programs in the Mathematical Sciences in the United States: Fall 2010 CBMS Survey.)

Despite the weak mathematical preparation of many undergraduates, the situation for STEM majors is less disturbing than readers of Hacker’s account might think. This account does not mention the number of students who enter STEM majors after the first year of college. Instead, it reports on those who leave: “By graduation, the number of students who start in STEM fields falls by a third.” This may have been intended as a rephrasing of page 184 of Teitelbaum’s Falling Behind? However, it does not say that these students graduated, only that they changed majors. The same page—in fact, the same paragraph—reports that the number of students who enter STEM majors after their first year of college is larger than the number of students who leave those majors after their first year. The outflow from STEM to other majors is substantial, but it is exceeded by the inflow of students from other majors to STEM. Moreover, another analysis found a small net increase in STEM majors between college entrance and graduation.

Falling Behind? notes that this “resorting” of undergraduates and majors does not occur in most other countries and discusses Hal Saltzman’s idea that “loose coupling between S&E [science and engineering]disciplines and S&E careers” may provide the US “some of its dynamism, innovativeness, and creativity.” Similarly, Anthony Carnevale and his colleagues write of the “diversion” of STEM-capable workers into non-STEM careers during or after college. They consider this to be a result of “increasing value of the competencies—the set of core cognitive knowledge, skills, and abilities—that are associated with STEM occupations, and the noncognitive work interests and work values associated with STEM occupations.” This increasing value is measured in dollars: “No matter what their occupation, STEM majors make substantially more over their lifetimes than non-STEM majors.” Hacker seems to have a different opinion, he interprets “holding jobs that didn’t require a BA” as “holding jobs that did not need their training.”

My experience leads me to agree with Carnevale et al. Although my Ph.D. is in mathematics, aside from a few visiting professorships, I have not held a post in what the Bureau of Labor Statistics might consider a STEM occupation for over twenty-five years. However, I think that my STEM competencies and values have served me well in my work as a mathematics education consultant. Among other things, they help me to be a careful reader of statistics.

My experience also leads me to agree with Teitelbaum that there are symptoms of malaise in STEM, such as unattractive career paths for Ph.D.s in biomedical sciences. This problem affects us all and I hope that a future issue of The New York Review of Books will discuss it.

Cathy Kessel
Berkeley, California

Andrew Hacker replies:

I have no problem with Joseph Ruby’s figures. He cites another crucial fact: our nation contains a lot of states like Florida. They not only impact our total PISA score, but raise our infant mortality and incarceration rates. If Forbes wants to view Massachusetts as a separate country, shouldn’t it do the same with Florida?

Michael Teitelbaum makes a convincing case that attrition in STEM fields is due largely to indifferent teaching. Cathy Kessel prefers to blame the “weak mathematical preparation” of students. But when 45 percent of engineering majors fail to finish, as the American Society for Engineering Education admits, mightn’t instruction deserve a second look? Nor does she cite another table in the report released by the American Mathematical Society, which shows that at our top universities, only 10.1 percent of introductory mathematics classes are taught by instructors with professorial status.