Do “Americans” really stink at math? Let’s check the numbers.

Last week, journalist and statistical illiterate Elizabeth Green published a highly visible article in the New York Times Magazine that proclaimed that we, the citizens of these United States, “stink” at math. I castigated Green for her misuse of actual data to back up the enticing headline, and while the article had nothing new to say (Stigler and Stevenson had a go at the Asia/US comparison back in 1994), I thought for the most part her comparison of math teaching and the culture of education in Japan and the U.S. held up pretty well.

Now it’s time for my response: Ms. Green, you are wrong – in point of fact, Americans are very good at math, but forget the Japanese, we should be looking at France if we want to see what great math education looks like. How do I know this? I used data!

The Fields Medal is the world’s most prestigious award for mathematics achievement. It is given out every 4 years to a select group of mathematicians around the world for outstanding discoveries in mathematics. It is much more selective than the Nobel Prize,  and while the money is not so great, the distinction is far, far higher.

In its 78 year history, the Fields Medal has been awarded to 54 different individuals from around the world. Here are the standings for the top 10 countries:

  1. The United States of America: 12 winners
  2. France: 10 winners
  3. Russia/Soviet Union: 9 winners
  4. United Kingdom: 6 winners
  5. Japan: 3 winners
  6. Belgium: 2 winners
  7. Germany: 1 winner
  8. Australia: 1 winner
  9. British Hong Kong: 1 winner
  10. Finland: 1 winner

It seems to me if we look at these numbers, the United States looks pretty good – in fact, I would go so far as to say that we totally kick ass! However, before I paint a rosy picture of math achievement in the U.S.A., it should also be known that the last Fields Medal winner from the U.S. was back in, wait for it, 1998! Meanwhile, oh la la, those wacky French and those studious and  irrepressible Russians have been cleaning our clocks: both countries have taken home 4 medals apiece in the last dozen years. And where is Ms. Green’s beloved Japan in this race? Ha, they have only 1 medal, and that was almost a quarter century ago (1990.)

Is this the face of the next United States math education innovation?

What can we conclude from the above data? Well, contrary to Ms. Green’s assertion, and when use factual, measurable and realistic comparison with other countries, it seems like our educational system is doing a very good job at teaching mathematics. If you look at the top 10 institutions that created winners of the Fields Medal, half of them are located in the United States of America! However, I would still keep an eye on the French: three of their institutions were in the top 10, while, wouldn’t you know it, Moscow State University languished at 11th place, and Kyoto University was well at the bottom. The United States may only take up a tiny fraction of the earth’s surface area, but we’ve totally got a complete lock on mathematical research and innovation.

Nowhere in this field do you see the originators of the latest über trendy mathematics program, Singapore. It seems while they are able to get their students to perform highly on the international math tests, they can’t actually spawn a world class mathematician. Frankly, I don’t think this speaks very highly of their educational system. If we’re going to model mathematics education on the practice in any free country, it seems to me we should be following the French. Okay, their food is very fattening and they love Jerry Lewis, but if we want to continue leading the world in mathematics achievement, sacrifices must be made!

About rmberkman

This blog is the sole musings of one Robert M. Berkman, an educator who has taught math, science and technology for the past 30 years in New York. You can react to all his posts by emailing him at
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