Thursday, December 09, 2004

Call In the Squad

The economy is about to explode.

At least that’s what the Wall Street Journal seems to think. The front page of the Marketplace section of Tuesday’s Journal ran an article titled: “Economic Time Bomb: U.S. Teens Are Among Worst at Math.” Our fifteen-year-olds ranked 24th out of the 29 countries included in Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation for math scores. The article goes on to quote Richard Murnane, a Harvard University economist: “It’s their productivity that will determine economic growth and whether my generation gets Social Security.”

Technically right, but sensibly wrong (and, as I’ll show, technically wrong to some degree). It’s not their productivity that will grant you Social Security; it’s their productivity in ten or fifteen years, and that makes all the difference. I don’t know why the WSJ thinks fifteen-year-olds are running the economy; maybe that’s because they’re running the WSJ.

So that might have been harsh, but I have reason. The article goes on to say that math scores for ACT and SAT scores are up slightly, but up from what they don’t say. Well, this article from (found by a simple Google search) tells us SAT scores were at a 30-year high just two years ago. The WSJ article then tries to play down the rising math scores, saying the test are too easy; “eighth-graders aren’t tested on fractions and percentages.” Granted it’s been a while since high school, but I don’t remember taking the SATs in eighth-grade.

For the sake of argument, let’s suppose that math scores for US citizens really are going down. Are we still sitting on a time bomb? Absolutely not; the Journal’s own article provides us with the answer (though they dress it up like it’s a bad thing). “US employers rely heavily on foreign applicants to fill high-tech jobs.” This is where Mr. Murnane misses a crucial point: he’s dependent on these people for his Social Security, too. And because foreigners are better at math (generally speaking), Americans can focus on other things: management, design, advertising, marketing, certain avenues of research and thousands of other professions that don’t require a deep understanding of mathematics (or at least requires a calculator and the knowledge to operate it). We can’t, and we don’t have to, be good at everything.

Whoever thought defusing a bomb would be so easy?


Chris said...

And besides, when's the last time anyone needed to know what the second derivative of 26x^3 was anyways.

Anonymous said...

Actually, Chris, I believe that the answer would be 156x. But, yeah, I guess there really is no point in being able to know that unless you plan on working as a mathematics professor or an engineer.