Vice President, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation
December 15, 2023
How can the U.S. be competitive without math? This is the question that America’s business leaders need to be asking themselves as we receive yet another concerning indicator that our nation’s public education system is moving in the wrong direction. The Program for International Student Assessments (PISA) recently released data from its latest international assessment of 15-year-old students. Results show that the U.S. is lagging behind many other countries, especially in math, jeopardizing our economic competitiveness and workforce strength. So, let's explore some of the implications these findings have for students, parents, policymakers — and how they can shape our country’s future.
Measuring Global Competitiveness Through Education Metrics
PISA results found America’s international rankings actually improved—albeit slightly—despite scores tumbling because other countries fared worse. The U.S. moved from 29th in mathematics to 26th, from eighth in reading to sixth, and from 11th in science to 10th. Math results dropped a staggering 13 points for U.S. students in 2022 compared to 2018 (Fun Fact: 20 points is equivalent to one full year of lost learning).
To make matters more disconcerting, this assessment is unique in that it focused not on memorization, but on real world math skills and problem solving, and the depth of understanding so coveted by America’s businesses and employers today. Our students lagged far behind Asian countries. Japanese students scored 71 points above American students in math in 2022—or 3.5 academic years ahead of U.S. students. Students in Singapore scored 110 points more than their American peers—5 staggering academic years ahead of U.S. students.
PISA is administered every three years and evaluates 15-year-olds' proficiency in reading, math, and science, though the 2022 administration focused on math. In science, the U.S. lagged 28 points behind Korea and 47 points behind Japan in 2022. In reading, Korea was 11 points ahead, and Singapore 39 points.
These results have huge implications for the United States’ global competitiveness and national security. S.T.E.M. (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields have and will continue to expand as a share of the U.S. economy. If students are exiting high school without a strong foundation in math, we cannot expect them to earn credentials or enter professional pathways that utilize these necessary baseline skills. Think: aviation, computer science, engineering, healthcare, IT, cyber security, the list goes on and on. If American businesses cannot fill those jobs with American workers, then where do they go to find the skills they need? They’ll have no choice but to look overseas, making our nation more dependent on other countries for our economic health and sustainability.
- 26th in MathGlobal Ranking for U.S. Students
- 6th in ReadingGlobal Ranking for U.S. Students
- 10th in ScienceGlobal Ranking for U.S. Students
Taking Actionable Steps to Improve Math and Science Education
At a time when public discourse has never been more polarized, we have to search for opportunities to come together. And I have good news, this is exactly one of those opportunities! These four important actions can uplift our students and transform the future of education:
- Prioritize math and science education. We must treat math and science as the building block for success –a foundational skill, like reading. Other countries do it, and we can too. We can no longer accept a system that allows students to enter the workforce without learning basic math and science skills.
- Invest in high-quality math instruction. Our math teachers need the best training and highest quality curriculum that leverages evidence-based practices with proven outcomes, directly contributing to student’s success.
- Extend instructional time for math and science. Tutoring, extended school days, and summer school can all help students learn more.
- Help parents understand their child’s progress. Make it easy for parents to check if their child is on grade level in math and science by ensuring the line of communication is open. Nearly nine in 10 parents in the U.S. believe their kids are at or above grade level, unfortunately, the reality is that less than a third of 8thgraders are on grade level for math.
We cannot let this moment pass us by as just another in a series of bad news in the post pandemic era. The truth is the pandemic didn’t prevent our top place finish—we've been far from the podium for decades. Our standing in the world is dependent on the quality of the education we provide for all of our children. The knowledge and skills students attain in K12 schools are the foundation for any future career. We must seize this moment to affirm our commitment to equip every student with the critical foundational skills they need to navigate a rapidly changing world and reach their full potential. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and U.S. Chamber Foundation will continue to grow and expand its vast network of business leaders committed to improving education, and specifically math comprehension, in their communities. Nothing is more important.
About the authors
Caitlin Codella Low
Caitlin Codella Low is vice president of policy and programs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. Low develops and oversees the Foundation’s programs for early childhood education, K‒12 education and its commitment to college- and career- readiness.