Blog Ipsa Loquitur

Published on under This Doesn’t Add Up

Elizabeth Green writes for the New York Times, asking Why Do Americans Stink at Math?

One of the most vivid arithmetic failings displayed by Americans occurred in the early 1980s, when the A&W restaurant chain released a new hamburger to rival the McDonald’s Quarter Pounder. With a third-pound of beef, the A&W burger had more meat than the Quarter Pounder; in taste tests, customers preferred A&W’s burger. And it was less expensive. A lavish A&W television and radio marketing campaign cited these benefits. Yet instead of leaping at the great value, customers snubbed it.

Only when the company held customer focus groups did it become clear why. The Third Pounder presented the American public with a test in fractions. And we failed. Misunderstanding the value of one-third, customers believed they were being overcharged. Why, they asked the researchers, should they pay the same amount for a third of a pound of meat as they did for a quarter-pound of meat at McDonald’s. The “4” in “¼,” larger than the “3” in “⅓,” led them astray.

The only thing America likes more than overeating is being bad at math, apparently.

The rest of the article largely focuses on math standardized test scores in Japan (and China and Korea), which handily beat American students’ scores. That’s not news.

What is news? Japan and China and Korea are teaching their kids math with methods developed in America in the 1980s. We didn’t adopt the thing we invented, and they did. And it works way better than the instructional model we cling to. There have been numerous (heh) attempts at updating our math curriculum in America, but they’ve all been abandoned shortly after adoption.