America Is Flunking Math

We need to get racial politics out of the equation before it's too late.

By Percy Deift, Svetlana Jitomirskaya and Sergiu Klainerman

Among all human endeavors, mathematics stands alone in terms of its beauty, universality, and innumerable applications. Though its role is often obscured by esoteric language, mathematics is behind almost all of humanity’s major advances in science and engineering.

Bridges stand, planes fly, rockets carry us into space, and MRIs can see into our brains thanks to precise mathematical calculations performed by powerful computers, invented by mathematicians such as Alan Turing and John von Neumann. Behind tasks performed by computers—predicting the weather, performing complex financial transactions, or encrypting billions of messages each day—lie sophisticated mathematical algorithms. Artificial intelligence, for example, is but a happy marriage between powerful computers and abstract mathematical models that sort and analyze massive amounts of data.

Before our discipline became the universal global enterprise it is today, great mathematical discoveries passed from ancient civilizations to medieval ones and then to modern ones. One can argue that the preeminence of each civilization was, in part, due to their sophisticated understanding and use of mathematics. This is particularly clear in the case of the West, which forged ahead in the 17th century with the discovery of calculus, one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of all time.

The United States became the dominant force in the mathematical sciences in the wake of World War II, largely due to the disastrous racist policies of the Third Reich. The Nazis’ obsession with purging German science of what it viewed as nefarious Jewish influence led to a massive exodus of Jewish mathematicians and scientists to America. One of them was Albert Einstein, whom Time magazine would declare Person of the Century in 1999. Science in Germany hasn't returned to its former glory to this day.

The quality of mathematics research in the United States today is the envy of the scientific world. This is a direct result of the openness and inclusivity of the profession. David Hilbert’s ‘‘mathematics knows no races’’ is the living motto of the community of American mathematicians. Indeed, academic institutions in the United States have thrived largely because of their ability to attract talented individuals from around the world. The availability of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) professionals, highly trained in mathematics, has been crucial to our success as a nation. 

Can Americans maintain this unmatched excellence in the future? There are worrisome signs that suggest not.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development compares mathematical proficiency among 15-year-olds by country worldwide. According to its 2018 report, America ranked 37th while China, America’s main competitor for world leadership, came in first. This is despite the fact that the United States is the fifth-highest spender per pupil among the 37 developed OECD nations. Alas, fewer and fewer young Americans are adequately prepared to embark on a career in STEM.

This massive failure of our K-12 education system trickles through the STEM pipeline. At the undergraduate level, too few American students are prepared for higher-level mathematics courses. These students are then unprepared for rigorous graduate-level work. According to our own experiences at the universities where we teach, an overwhelming majority of American students with strong math backgrounds are either foreign-born or first-generation students who have additional support from their education-conscious families. At all levels, STEM disciplines are more and more dependent on a constant flow of foreign talent.

There are many reasons for this failure, but the way that we educate and prepare teachers is particularly influential. The vast majority of K-12 math teachers are graduates of teacher-preparation programs that teach very little substantive mathematics. Schools of education are filled with courses about social justice, identity politics, or, at best, methods courses with minimal math content. Math majors, on the other hand, must be certified to teach math in most public schools, which is a costly and time-consuming process. This has led to a constant stream of ill-advised and dumbed-down reforms. One of the latest fads is anti-racist mathematics. Promoted in several states, the bizarre doctrine threatens to further degrade the teaching of mathematics.

Another major concern is the twisted interpretation of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Under the banner of DEI, universities are abandoning the use of standardized tests like the SAT and GRE in admissions, and cities are considering scrapping academic tracking and various gifted programs in schools, which they deem “inequitable.” This is despite the fact that such programs are particularly effective, when properly implemented, at discovering and encouraging talented children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The new 2021 Mathematics Framework, currently under consideration by California’s Department of Education, does away “with all tracking, acceleration, gifted programs, or any instruction that involves clustering by individual differences, without expressing any awareness of the impact these drastic alterations would have in preparing STEM-ready candidates.” Readjustments in this direction are happening in other states, too. These measures will not only hinder the progress of the generations of our future STEM workforce but also contribute to structural inequalities, as they are uniquely detrimental to students whose parents cannot send them to private schools or effective enrichment programs. Children stuck with this low-quality education are rarely prepared for higher education and employment in STEM.

These are just a few examples of an unprecedented fervor for revolutionary change in the name of Critical Race Theory (CRT), a doctrine that views the world as a fierce battleground for the narratives of various identity groups. This will only lead to a further widening of racial disparities in educational outcomes while lowering American children’s rankings in education internationally.

Ill-conceived DEI policies, often informed by CRT, and the declining standards of K-12 math education feed each other in a vicious circle, which is in time going to affect the entire mathematics profession and, more broadly, all STEM disciplines. The mechanism is as simple as it is hard to combat. Regarding minorities, in particular, public K-12 education all too often produces students unprepared to compete, thus leading to large disparities in admissions at universities, graduate programs, and faculty positions. This disparity is then condemned as a manifestation of structural racism, resulting in administrative measures to lower the evaluation criteria. Lowering standards at all levels leads eventually to even worse outcomes and larger disparities, and so on in a downward spiral.

A case in point is the recent report by the American Mathematical Society that accuses, by implication, the entire mathematics community, with the thinnest of specific evidence, of systemic racial discrimination. A major justification put forward for such a grave accusation is the lack of sufficient representation of Black mathematicians in the profession. This lack of representation is real and very serious, but the report, while raising awareness of several ugly facts from the long-ago past, makes little effort to address the real reasons for this, mainly the catastrophic failure of the K-12 mathematical educational system.

Similar trends affect most, if not all, academic institutions, including the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The National Science Foundation, a federal institution meant to support fundamental research, is now diverting some of its limited funding to various DEI initiatives of questionable benefit. These “feel good” measures to address the lack of representation of various groups in the profession risk sacrificing excellence while doing little to address the underlying problems. Meanwhile, other countries, especially China, are doing precisely the opposite, following the model of our past dedication to objective measures of excellence. How long before we will see a reverse exodus, away from the United States?

The present crisis can still be reversed by focusing on a few concrete actions:

  • Allow math majors to teach without onerous accreditation procedures and insist that all math teachers take rigorous courses in math departments.

  • Improve schools in urban areas and inner-city neighborhoods by following the most promising education programs. These programs demonstrate that inner-city children benefit if they are challenged by high standards and a nurturing environment.

  • Follow the lead of other highly successful rigorous programs such as BASIS schools and Math for America, which focus on rigorous STEM curricula, combined with 21st-century teaching methods.

  • Increase, rather than eliminate, tailored instruction, both for accelerated and remedial math courses.

  • Encourage dual college enrollment and online programs for advanced students.

  • Support math circles and outreach programs, math olympiads and math camps—all proven vehicles to discover and nurture math talent.

  • Reject the soft bigotry of low expectations, that Black children cannot do well in competitive mathematics programs and need dumbed-down ethnocentric versions of mathematics.

  • Uphold the objective selection process based on merit at all levels of education and research.

Racial and ethnic disparities in STEM disciplines need to be confronted at the source: K-12  education. Accusations of systemic racism are not only vacuous but divisive and harmful—to mathematics, the society at large, and especially to the very people they are supposed to help. American mathematics, and all that currently hinges on it, can only maintain its excellence if math continues its immensely successful tradition of knowing no races.

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