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International Mathematical Olympiad 2001 USA

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International Mathematical Olympiad 2001 USA

Neal Lane
Assistant to the President for Science and Technology

Secretary's Conference Room
U.S. Department of Education

September 27, 1999

Thank you Kent.  Good Morning.  It is an honor to be here today to join in the announcement that the United States will host the International Mathematical Olympiad in the year 2001.  This important event is a celebration of the accomplishments of the best and brightest high school mathematics students from all over the world.  It is also an opportunity to highlight once again the critical importance of mathematics and science education for our young people and the contributions they will make to our nation's economy and overall well-being.

The Administration is strongly committed to ensuring that the kind of exceptional mathematical achievements that we will honor in July become more the norm for our own high school students.  These impressive young U.S. Olympiad participants exemplify the promise, indeed the commitment, that we have as a nation to produce the best and the brightest for our future work force.  It is clear that to ensure an adequate talent pool for this country – for high tech business as well as most other sectors of the economy – we must support high quality mathematics and science education in every way we can.

Our Office of Science and Technology Policy in the White House works in partnership with the U.S. Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, and many other agencies and organizations in  endeavors that seek to improve the quality of mathematics and science education in our nation.  President Clinton, Secretary Riley and all of us in the Administration are committed to ensuring that the workforce of the future – the students in our elementary and secondary schools right now – possess the highly sophisticated skills in the sciences, mathematics, and technology that they will need in the 21st century.

The Administration has promoted a number of successful initiatives in math and science education.  But I would like to mention briefly one promising new effort.  I am particularly enthusiastic about the recently established National Commission on Mathematics and Science Teaching for the 21st Century, chaired by former Senator and astronaut John Glenn.  This commission, on which I am pleased to serve, is dedicated to helping the many levels of government as well as business and other important partners improve mathematics and science teaching in our elementary and secondary schools.  The Glenn Commission is made up of truly outstanding leaders from every sector.  And I'm confident it will work hard and will make a unique and important contribution.

Of course, there is much work to be done.  We are all aware of the distressing findings of the Third International  Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) that showed that the average U.S. student standing in mathematics slides steadily downward relative to that of other nations as the students progress through their precollegiate education.  Sadly, the impressive academic accomplishment and bright promise of the U.S. team that we will celebrate in July is not representative of overall student performance in the U.S. when compared to their international counterparts.  By the time U.S. students reach the 12th grade, they average near the bottom of participating countries in their mathematics achievement, a finding that the nation simply cannot tolerate.  Of course, the picture is not static.  For example, mathematics scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have shown improvement.  However, regardless of how you analyze these and other indicators of our nation's mathematics achievement, it is clear that we must do better.  We are confident that all students can reach higher standards of excellence in mathematics, and we must not rest until they all do.

Let me also mention a less well-known analysis that came out of the TIMSS – a sophisticated video study of mathematics instruction – that provides us with a rare look into how mathematics is taught in America and other countries, a first-of-its-kind comparative analysis of what goes on in a representative sample of American, Japanese, and German 8th grade mathematics classrooms.  What those researchers found was that despite the rich diversity of our nation, there is surprisingly very little variability in U.S. 8th grade mathematics classroom instruction.

For example, we learned from this innovative study that the typical 8th grade mathematics lesson in the U.S. begins with the presentation of concepts and example problems carefully worked out by the teacher, followed by time for students to work out practice problems.  The teacher then roams the classroom to ensure that no student is struggling with the material, and provides individual help to those students having trouble.  This kind of experience probably sounds rather familiar to many of you in this room.  It was my 8th grade class.

The Japanese model, in stark contrast, usually begins with the teacher posing mathematical problems that the students have never seen before.  They are given time to work on their own and in groups and then are asked to present their solutions, or non-solutions, to the class.  In this way, the students are forced to struggle with foreign concepts and apply what they know to develop solutions to hard problems; struggling through difficult subject matter is purposefully promoted, rather than avoided.  The American student, when confronted with an unfamiliar problem tends to say "we haven't had that" and that's the end of the discussion.  The Japanese student, on the other hand, works on the problem for as much time as is available, refusing to give up.

While I do not believe it is feasible or desirable to attempt to replicate the Japanese classroom in the U.S., these comparative observations nonetheless provide us important insights into how the way we teach mathematics links with what students are able to learn in the complex field of mathematics.  The kind of group-think, problem-solving that typifies Japanese classrooms is precisely the kind of approach that IMO teams will adopt in the upcoming competition, and that I believe should receive more emphasis in our schools.  Mastering these thinking skills will be critical for our young people to be competitive in the workplace of the 21st century, and in turn for our nation to be competitive in an increasingly technological world.

The amazing students we will honor in July are the success stories we must work together to proliferate.  I look forward to the competition, and wish the best of luck to the U.S. team and to all of our international friends.

Thank you.

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