Whether frustration over algebra, confusion about fractions or anger at calculus, Larry Hatfield has heard about it.
“Every mathematician,” he says, “can report moments of negative energy.”
And the moaning and groaning is especially loud in the United States, where negativity that has festered throughout generations now threatens to cripple the country’s ability to compete globally, not only with China and Japan but many countries.
How far behind are American students? In a 2011 report by Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, the U.S. ranked behind 31 countries in math proficiency. The report’s top finisher achieved a proficiency of 75 percent among high school graduates, more than doubling the U.S. rate of 32 percent.
“We have some bad attitudes about math in our country,” says Hatfield, the Wyoming Excellence in Higher Education Endowed Chair in Mathematics Education. “If you ask Asians about their child’s achievements, almost universally across nations, they will attribute a child not doing well in math to not trying hard enough. But, in the United States, we have clear evidence that parents say, ‘I don’t like math and I didn’t do well at it and neither will my kids.’ That’s a major problem.”
The University of Wyoming, with Hatfield in front, is working to foster an American renaissance in mathematics education through the Wyoming Institute for the Study and Development of Mathematical Education (WISDOMe). Created in 2010, WISDOMe works collaboratively with a global alliance of researchers to stimulate and support four key scholarly domains.
The virtual institute also serves to promote UW’s doctoral program in mathematics education, which has grown from two students in 2009 to a cohort of 12, with hopes of 18-20 students in coming years, and to facilitate opportunities for professional development amongst UW faculty.
In addition to quantitative reasoning, mathematical modeling and technological tools and applications, WISDOMe scholars have begun to study a mostly virgin domain of research, lived and living experiences, to answer critical questions about this country’s aversion to mathematics.
“I think we’ve got ourselves into a deep mess because we haven’t paid attention to the quality, the nature and the impacts of the experiences that are happening in the lives of math teachers and students in real classrooms,” says Hatfield, who built his reputation as an international leader in mathematics education at the University of Georgia. “Too many kids hate math by second grade. They say, ‘I don’t understand math, so I can’t do math. I must be dumb. I must be stupid.’ We have to stop that from happening.”
Four years after UW lured him to build its doctoral program, Hatfield believes WISDOMe is poised to change the face of mathematics education at Wyoming’s university and contribute in a meaningful way to one of America’s most desperate educational needs.
“While we do need to strengthen our research and scholarship as well as our commitments to quality graduate education, we really need to be focused on recruiting, admitting, developing and mentoring the strongest students we can,” he says. “That is absolutely the future.”