As US Schools Prioritize Diversity Over Merit, China Is Becoming the World’s STEM Leader

All three of us are mathematicians who came to the United States as young immigrants, having been attracted by the unmatched quality and openness of American universities. We came, as many others before and after, with nothing more than a good education and a strong desire to succeed. As David Hilbert famously said, “Mathematics knows no races or geographic boundaries; for mathematics, the cultural world is one country.” Having built our careers in US academia, we are proud to call ourselves American mathematicians.

The United States has been dominant in the mathematical sciences since the mass exodus of European scientists in the 1930s. Because mathematics is the basis of science—as well as virtually all major technological advances, including scientific computing, climate modelling, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, and robotics—US leadership in math has supplied our country with an enormous strategic advantage. But for various reasons, three of which we set out below, the United States is now at risk of losing that dominant position.

First, and most obvious, is the deplorable state of our K-12 math education system. Far too few American public-school children are prepared for careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). This leaves us increasingly dependent on a constant inflow of foreign talent, especially from mainland China, Taiwan, South Korea, and India. In a 2015 survey conducted by the Council of Graduate Schools and the Graduate Record Examinations Board, about 55 percent of all participating graduate students in mathematics, computer sciences, and engineering at US schools were found to be foreign nationals. In 2017, the National Foundation for American Policy estimated that international students accounted for 81 percent of full-time graduate students in electrical engineering at U.S. universities; and 79 percent of full-time graduate students in computer science.

That report also concluded that many programs in these fields couldn’t even be maintained without international students. In our field, mathematics, we find that at most top departments in the United States, at least two-thirds of the faculty are foreign born. (And even among those faculty born in the United States, a large portion are first-generation Americans.) Similar patterns may be observed in other STEM disciplines.

The second reason for concern is that the nationwide effort to reduce racial disparities, however well-intentioned, has had the unfortunate effect of weakening the connection between merit and scholastic admission. It also has served (sometimes indirectly) to discriminate against certain groups—mainly Asian Americans. The social-justice rhetoric used to justify these diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs is often completely at odds with the reality one observes on campuses. The concept of fighting “white supremacy,” in particular, doesn’t apply to the math field, since American-born scholars of all races now collectively represent a small (and diminishing) minority of the country’s academic STEM specialists.

Third, other countries are now competing aggressively with the United States to recruit top talent, using the same policies that worked well for us in the past. Most notably, China, America’s main economic and strategic competitor, is in the midst of an extraordinary, mostly successful, effort to improve its universities and research institutions. As a result, it is now able to retain some of the best Chinese scientists and engineers, as well as attract elite recruits from the United States, Europe, and beyond.

In a 2018 report published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), China ranked first in mathematical proficiency among 15-year-olds, while the United States was in 25th place. And a recent large-scale study of adults’ cognitive abilities, conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, found that many Americans lack the basic skills in math and reading required for successful participation in the economy. This poor performance can’t be explained by budgetary factors: When it comes to education spending per pupil, the United States ranks fifth among 37 developed OECD nations.

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There are numerous underlying factors that help explain these failures—including some that, as mathematicians, we feel competent to address. One obvious problem lies in the way teachers are trained. The vast majority of K-12 math teachers in the United States are graduates of programs that teach little in the way of substantive mathematics beyond so-called math methods courses (which focus on such topics as “understanding the complexities of diverse, multiple-ability classrooms”). This has been true for some time. But the trend has become more noticeable in recent years, as curricula increasingly shift from actual mathematics knowledge to courses about social justice and identity politics.

At the same time, math majors—who can arrive in the classroom pre-equipped with substantive mathematics knowledge—must go through the process of teacher certification before they can teach math in most public schools, a costly and time-consuming prerequisite. The policy justification for this is that all teachers need pedagogical training to perform effectively. But to our knowledge, this claim isn’t supported by the experience of other advanced countries. Moreover, in those US schools where certification isn’t required, such as in many charter and private schools, math majors and PhDs are in great demand, and the quality of math instruction they provide is often superior.

Even if some pedagogical training is desirable, particularly for elementary-school teachers, it is easier for a math specialist to pick up teaching skills on the job than it is for a trained teacher to acquire fundamental math knowledge. Based on our own experience, the best high school teachers are typically those who have solid mathematics backgrounds and enjoy teaching math.

An even bigger problem, in our view, is that the educational establishment has an almost complete lock on the content taught in our schools, with little input from the university math community. This unusual feature of American policymaking has led to a constant stream of ill-advised and dumbed-down “reforms,” which have served to degrade the teaching of mathematics to such an extent that it has become difficult to distinguish a student who is capable from one who is not.

Those who find that last assertion difficult to accept should peruse the revised Mathematics Framework proposed by California’s Department of Education. If implemented, the California framework would do away with any tracking or differentiation of students up to the 11th grade. In order to achieve what the authors call “equity” in math education, the framework would effectively close the main pathway to calculus in high school to all students except those who take extra math outside school—which, in practice, means students from families that can afford enrichment programs (or those going to charter and private schools). California is just one state, of course. But as has been widely noted, when it comes to policymaking, what happens in California today often will come to other states tomorrow.

The framework proposed for California’s 10,588 public schools and their six-million-plus students promotes “data science” as a preferred pathway, touting it as the mathematics of the 21st century. While this might sound like a promising idea, the actual “data-science” pathway described in the framework minimizes algebraic training to such an extent that it leaves students completely unprepared for most STEM undergraduate degrees. Algebra is essential to modern mathematics; and there is hardly any application of mathematics (including real data science) that is not based to a large extent on either algebra or calculus (with the latter being impossible to explain or implement without the former).

The authors write that “a fundamental aim of this framework is to respond to issues of inequity in mathematics learning”; that “we reject ideas of natural gifts and talents [and the] cult of the genius”; and that “active efforts in mathematics teaching are required in order to counter the cultural forces that have led to and continue to perpetuate current inequities.” And yet the research they cite to justify these claims has been demonstrated to be shallow, misleadingly applied, vigorously disputed, or just plainly wrong. Even the specific model lessons offered in the proposed framework fail to withstand basic mathematical scrutiny, as they muddle basic logic, present problems that can’t be solved by techniques described as being available to students, or list solutions without discussing the need for a proof (thus developing a false understanding of what it means to “solve” a problem—a misconception that university educators such as ourselves must struggle to undo).

The low quality of public K-12 math education in the United States has affected all demographic groups. But it has had a particularly strong negative effect on non-immigrant blacks and Hispanics, as well as young women of all races. This has led to a disappointing level of representation for these groups in STEM disciplines, which in turn has provoked understandable concern. We applaud efforts to address this problem, insofar as they help remove remaining obstacles and prejudices, and encourage more women and underrepresented minorities to choose careers in mathematics and other STEM disciplines. Indeed, partly as a result of such steps, the representation of women in our profession has increased dramatically over the last 50 years.

But what started as a well-meaning and sometimes beneficial effort has, over time, transformed into a bureaucratic machine whose goal has gone well beyond fighting discrimination. The new goal is to eliminate disparities in representation by any means possible. This is why education officials in some school boards and cities—and even entire states, such as California and Virginia—are moving to scrap academic tracking and various K-12 gifted programs, which they deem “inequitable.” Operating on the same motivations, many universities are abandoning the use of standardized tests such as the SAT and GRE in admissions.

This trend, which reaches across many fields, is especially self-defeating in mathematics, because declining standards in K-12 math education are now feeding into a vicious cycle that threatens to affect all STEM disciplines. As already noted, low-quality K-12 public-school education produces students who exhibit sub-par math skills, with underprivileged minorities suffering the most. This in turn leads to large disparities in admissions at universities, graduate programs, faculty, and STEM industry positions. Those disparities are then, in turn, condemned as manifestations of systemic racism—which results in administrative measures aimed at lowering evaluation criteria. This lowering of standards leads to even worse outcomes and larger disparities, thus pushing the vicious cycle through another loop.

The short-term fix is a quota system. But when applied to any supposedly merit-based selection process, quotas are usually counterproductive. Various studies, which accord with our own experience in academia, show that placing talented students from underrepresented groups in math programs that are too advanced for their level of preparedness can lead to discouragement, and often even abandonment of the field. Typically, these students would be better served by slightly less competitive, more nurturing programs that accord with their objectively exhibited levels of performance.

Unfortunately, the trend is pointing in the opposite direction. In fact, at many of our leading academic and research institutions, including the National Academies of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Science Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health, scientific excellence is being supplanted by diversity as the determining factor for eligibility in regard to prizes and other distinctions. And some universities, following the example of the University of California, are now implementing measures to evaluate candidates for faculty positions and promotions based not only on the quality of their research, teaching, and service, but also on their specifically articulated commitment to diversity metrics. Various institutions have even introduced pathways to tenure based on diversity activities alone. The potential damage such measures can bring to academic standards in STEM is immense. And the history of science is full of examples that show how performative adherence to a politically favored ideology, easily faked by opportunistic and mediocre scientists, can lead to the devaluation of entire academic fields.

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Needless to say, China pursues none of the equity programs that are sweeping the United States. Quite the contrary: It is building on the kind of accelerated, explicitly merit-based programs, centered on gifted students, that are being repudiated by American educators. Having learned its lesson from the Cultural Revolution, when science and merit-based education were all but obliterated in favor of ideological indoctrination, China is pursuing a far-sighted, long-term strategy to create a world-leading corps of elite STEM experts. In some strategically important fields, such as quantum computing, the country is arguably already ahead of the United States.

As part of this effort, China is identifying and nurturing talented math students as early as middle school. At the university entrance level, China relies on a hierarchical, layered system based on a highly competitive, fairly administered, national exam. STEM disciplines are encouraged: According to the World Economic Forum, China has the highest number of STEM grads in the world—at least 4.7 million in 2016. (By comparison, the United States came in third at 569,000. And as noted previously, a large portion of these graduates are foreign nationals.) China also has vastly increased the quality of its top universities, with six now ranked among the best 100 in the world. Tsinghua and Peking (ranked 17th and 18th respectively) now narrowly outrank Columbia, Princeton, and Cornell. As visitors to these Chinese universities (including ourselves) can attest, the average math undergraduate is now performing at a much higher level than his or her counterpart at comparable US institutions.

One reason for this is the work of scientists such as Shing-Tung Yau, a prominent Harvard mathematician who has spent decades helping to build up research mathematics in China. A key feature of the selective and consequential undergraduate competitions he’s developed over the last 10 years is that students are encouraged to focus their studies precisely on the content they will need as research mathematicians. High placement in these competitions virtually guarantees a student a spot at a top graduate school, and the program thereby helps systematically attract talented people to mathematics.

More recently, another group of prominent mathematicians (including some based in the United States), acting with the help of the Alibaba technology conglomerate and the China Association for Science and Technology, have created a global undergraduate mathematics competition with similar features. High schoolers who excel in annual math olympiads also are fast-tracked into top university programs.

While China already produces almost twice as many STEM PhDs as the United States, its universities still lag their US counterparts with respect to the quality of their graduate education programs. This is why many talented Chinese scholars continue to enroll in US programs. But this talent flow will likely soon ebb, or even dry up completely, as Chinese universities are now actively attracting senior Chinese, US, and European scientists to their faculty. (And unlike their American institutional counterparts, they recruit on the merit principle, unhampered by ideologically dictated diversity mandates.) In some cases, we are seeing prominent mathematicians at good or even top US schools moving to Peking and Tsinghua Universities after long and successful US careers. Many of these scholars are Chinese, but some are not.

We do not wish to gloss over China’s status as an authoritarian country that exhibits little concern for personal freedoms. But acknowledging this fact only serves to emphasize the significance of the shift we are describing: The drawbacks of American education policies are so pronounced that US schools are now losing their ability to attract elite scholars despite the fact that the United States offers these academics a freer and more democratic environment.

Moreover, even America’s vaunted reputation as a welcoming land for immigrants has taken a hit thanks to the recent, highly-publicized wave of anti-Asian crimes—which, though small in scale, is scaring off some Chinese students and their parents. Of greater significance are the thinly disguised anti-Asian policies (masquerading as anti-racism mandates) that are implemented by top US schools as a means to exclude Asian students.

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Reversing America’s slide in STEM education will require many policy changes, not all of which fall within our expertise as mathematicians and academics. But at the very least, we recommend that American education authorities prioritize the development of comprehensive STEM curricula, at both basic and advanced levels, and allow outstanding mathematicians and other scientists to assist public servants in their design. Highly successful precedents such as the BASIS Charter School Curriculum and the Math for America teacher-development program supply examples of how such curricula might be developed. This should be coupled with a nationwide effort to identify and develop students who exhibit exceptional math talent.

American policymakers must also address the misplaced priorities of the education schools that train teachers. At the very least, math majors should be allowed to teach without following a full slate of accreditation procedures. And people who teach middle and high-school math should themselves be required to receive rigorous instruction in that subject.

Schools in urban areas and inner-city neighborhoods should be improved by following the most promising models. Such programs demonstrate that children benefit if they are challenged by high standards and a nurturing environment. Ideally, schools should operate in a manner that allows them to avoid year-to-year dependence on the vagaries of local funding and bureaucratic mandates.

More broadly, American educators must return to a process of recruitment and promotion based on merit, at all levels of education and research—a step that will require a policy U-turn at the federal, state, and local levels (not to mention at universities, and at tech corporations that have sought to reinvent themselves as social-justice organizations). Instead of implementing divisive policies based on the premise of rooting out invisible forms of racism, or seeking to deconstruct the idea of merit in spurious ways, organizations should redirect their (by now substantial) DEI budgets toward more constructive goals, such as funding outreach programs, and even starting innovative new charter schools for underprivileged K-12 students. Elite private universities, in particular, are well positioned to direct portions of their huge endowments and vast professional expertise in this regard. By doing so, they could demonstrate that it’s possible to help minority students succeed without sacrificing excellence.

The proposals we are describing here may sound highly ambitious—not to mention being at cross-currents with today’s ideological climate. But we also believe there will soon be an opportunity for change, as the rapid rise of China in strategically important STEM fields may help shock the American policymaking community into action—much like the so-called Sputnik crisis of the late 1950s and early 1960s, when it was Russia’s soaring level of technical expertise that became a subject of public concern. Then, as now, the only path to global technological leadership was one based on a rigorous, merit-based approach to excellence in mathematics, science, and engineering.

 

 

Percy Deift, Svetlana Jitomirskaya, and Sergiu Klainerman are professors of mathematics at, respectively, New York University, Georgia Institute of Technology and University of California Irvine, and Princeton University.

 


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2021/08/19/as-us-schools-prioritize-diversity-over-merit-china-is-becoming-the-worlds-stem-leader/
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Freddy deBoer had an interesting statistic about the quality of education in the USA. On average, the US is doing badly in PISA and other evaluations. However, if you split the results by race and compare each race against the region it immigrated (or was dragged) from, the USA is doing generally better. I.e. US whites do better than their European counterparts.

If this is true, maybe we should stop whining about education quality and blaming the teachers?

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But is it only educational standards & diversity preferences that are making the difference here? Education declines across immigrant generations including Asians indicate that something else may also be going on. Perhaps different cultural expectations also influence educational outcomes between countries?

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I dearly love you- but you need to rob yourself of the blank slatist streak. There is, of course, an element of culture- a complex soup which we have barely studied- but in general the belief in the blank slate and the power of education only robs future generations of their inheritance.

The best studies prove that an optimal education increases outcomes by 10%- even one bad teacher can reduce outcomes by up to 35%. Progressive education is anything but- it reinforces class differences because it is a steaming pile of ordure.

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Love you back gorg, but all I’m sayin’ is that it’s a mixed bag of factors where the influences of living in poverty under a ruthless meritocratic authoritarian collectivist regime can hardly be ignored so lets not pretend culture has nothing to do with it just so we can have another swipe at the diversity boogey man…

And I’m also not too impressed with the implication that the benefits of the balance in education the west provides should be ignored as well. There are more things to a satisfying life than being the leaders of STEM…

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One would have thought that curing cancer and solving climate change were worthwhile pursuits (and before you say, yes it really is the same fruit basket). Or would you prefer those dangerously capable young male minds were set to work finding ways to denude you of your pension.

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Wow. Another stunning Ella-B admission. You don’t understand STEM, so deny that it has any value. Gee, I guess real progress comes from documenting the 67 different genders and determining pronoun use for them, right?

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You ok there George? Didn’t strain anything smacking those strawmen around did you?

There is a whole world of topics and job opportunities between “STEM” and “make believe genders”.

This is actually a very Conservative position. Blue collar work is real, necessary, and a great option for those who are not collegiately inclined. STEM isn’t for everyone and pretending otherwise is a recipe for unhappiness and failure.

Not going into a STEM field is not the equivalent of majoring in Indigenous Cis-Lesbian Studies.

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The results of that study are not surprising, we can look all the way back to Ancient Greece and see how the cultures of the different cities influenced the skill sets of the people those cultures produced. If @Geary_Johansen2020 thinks that makes me a “blank slatist” he’s not understanding the reasoning at all.

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Your’e welcome G.
Listen, I’m not saying STEM isn’'t a priority just that it matters how you get there. See bat lab soup. :bat: And before we sing the praises of a Chinese education let’s be sure we would want our children to endure it.
I’m actually very impressed with the piece regarding their take on improving education but what grinds my gears is using fear of Chinese superiority & diversity as necessary to get attention on this important issue that only ends up distracting from the essence of the problem & solutions.

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Agree with Patrick, this is dialling strawmanning up to eleventy.

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Now you have done it. You made this obligatory…

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There are many problems with Chinese education. However, the point of this article is that Chinese still value excellence, and the USA is switching to equity. It’s going to be a disaster.

Despite my PhD in STEM area, I do not worship math. I have a nuanced view of the value of mathematical abstraction in the world of complexity and confusion. But the notion that we can replace excellence with equity is truly evil.

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I take your point that the equity focus doesn’t help but the problems in education were already dire long before diversity came on the scene through lack of investment & bungling that conservative governments are also responsible for. Perhaps if more more attention & resources had been directed to building a more efficient education system the equity barbarians wouldn’t be at the gates?

I do not think that that our mathematical friends know what they are up against. It isn’t just counterproductive and dysfunctional policy trotted out in the name of equity, nor merely misguided idealism or ideological ‘eccentricity’.

It is much more serious than that.

The woke activists in universities are abandoning The ‘Enlightenment’ tradition in favor of a reversion to a more Medieval model of doctrine and dogma driven neo clericalism, where the latest identitarian iteration of theology is once again, the queen of the sciences and reason retreats before the increasingly intolerant and heresy sniffing dictums of received knowledge.

The old students of these postmodern institutions have taken over the system of social administration and pedagogy across the board, over a period of about 50-70 years. Opposition has been all but removed.

This isn’t new, but the moves to close all the doors on older forms of civilization and knowledge is new, as the rising neo clerical and ideologically fundamentalist ascendancy now openly consolidates its power, much as the Taliban is now doing in Afghanistan.

Just like the Taliban, their main agenda is conformity rather than knowledge.

One is faced with the choice of leaving the public system in favor of private education, but that sector will not be safe against the wokes for long. If one has the money, the safest option is to send one’s children to be educated in Asia. And if one doesn’t, one either knuckles down to wokedom, or prepares for war, because I suspect, that is what it will take to dislodge and purge the bastards from the system…and replace them all with Asian migrants.

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This is a good point. According to surveys, most Americans who think our public education system is abysmal are nevertheless satisfied with the local school their children attend. (The same is true of the U.S. Congress as an institution and individual members of Congress.) Sweeping generalizations about the supposed awfulness of education in America obscure the fact that many (most?) teachers are dedicated and effective educators and many (most?) students receive a quality education.

Likewise, reading story after story about the worst Woke excesses in bright-blue school districts creates the false impression that the same kind of inanity has infected all schools across the country. That simply isn’t true. Most schools – at both the secondary and post-secondary levels – still teach the basics instead of engaging in ideological indoctrination. This is not to say that we shouldn’t be concerned about problems in the educational system, including the incursion of CRT-related nonsense, but we should keep the challenges we face in the proper perspective instead of succumbing to a moral panic.

Regarding STEM, schools across the country have implemented numerous initiatives to encourage students (especially but not only girls) to pursue fields in math, science and engineering. We can, perhaps do more – and accept the fact, contra the commitment to “equity,” that males and females will probably never demonstrate the same level of interest in these fields – but it’s important to recognize that this issue is already being addressed.

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I suppose there are resemblances to religion - not just in the existence of a priestly class who provide intellectual rationales for doctrine, but also the role of sanctimony and social pressure in the adherence of ordinary people to the new beliefs.

However, it’s still unclear to me how influential ‘wokeness’ will ever become. For now it’s still taking place in a decidedly technocratic capitalist society. It seems to be noblesse oblige for the upper middle class of that society, and I don’t see it becoming so powerful as to derail the other transformative trends of such a society, above all the rise of AI and a “posthuman” order of things.

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That’s because they don’t know what to look for in a good school. Desks that face the front of the class are paramount (except in a science class, where experimentation is supposed to inculcate the habits of a lab tech). Semi-circular class layouts are usually even better, because this generally means smaller class sizes.

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Hmmm. This is a rather patronizing comment. Parents in the U.S. who can afford to do so spend tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy houses in districts with higher quality schools. I don’t think they make this kind of investment without researching their options.

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