11/15/2010 04:54 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

United States Lags in Top Math Students

The United States isn't a high achiever in math education, concluded Eric Hanushek, Paul Peterson and Ludger Woessmann in Education Next.

No fewer than 30 of the 56 other countries that participated in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) math test, including most of the world's industrialized nations, had a larger percentage of students who scored at the international equivalent of the advanced level on our own National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests.

Only 6 percent of U.S. students scored at the advanced level on the PISA 2006 math exam, compared to 28 percent of Taiwanese students and at least 20 percent of students in Hong Kong, Korea, and Finland. Race and poverty don't explain it: Eight percent of white students in the United States and 10.3 of those with a college-graduate parent achieve at the advanced level.

Twelve other countries had more than twice the percentage of advanced students as the United States: in order of math excellence, they are Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Liechtenstein, New Zealand, the Czech Republic, Japan, Canada, Macao-China, Australia, Germany, and Austria.

The remaining countries that educate a greater proportion of their students to a high level are Slovenia, Denmark, Iceland, France, Estonia, Sweden, the United Kingdom, the Slovak Republic, Luxembourg, Hungary, Poland, Norway, Ireland and Lithuania.

The United States performs at the same level as Spain and Italy and outperforms Portugal, Greece, Turkey, and Mexico.

Massachusetts, with over 11 percent of its students at the advanced level, does better than any other state, reaching the level of Germany and France. Minnesota, with more than 10 percent of its students at the advanced level, is up there with Slovenia and Denmark.

The lowest-ranking states -- West Virginia, New Mexico, and Mississippi -- lag Serbia and Uruguay but edge out Romania, Brazil, and Kyrgyzstan.

In "Your Child Left Behind" in The Atlantic, Amanda Ripley looks at the study, noting that the United States spends more per student on K-12 education than all but three other countries -- Luxembourg, Switzerland and Norway.

She also reports that a "2010 study of teacher-prep programs in 16 countries found a striking correlation between how well students did on international exams and how their future teachers performed on a math test."

Our future middle school math teachers knew about as much math as their peers in Thailand and Oman -- and nowhere near what future teachers in Taiwan and Singapore knew. Moreover, the results showed dramatic variation depending on the teacher-training program.

The United States does lead the world in self-esteem: 85 percent of U.S. teens are confident about their own math and science abilities, an Intel survey finds. They're much more realistic about their country's performance. Only 10 percent say the United States is leading the world in math and science learning: 67 percent say Japan or China is the top country.

Teens say the United States lags in math and science because Americans don't work hard enough and lack discipline. Only a third blame inadequate funding or a failure to emphasize math and science.

Failure to educate top mathematicians is a national-security issue. Half of U.S. graduate students in mathematics can't work for the National Security Agency because they're not U.S. citizens, reports Business Week.

Math is more important than ever at the NSA. Chances are, the world's growing rivers of data contain terrorist secrets, and it's up to the agency's math teams to find them.

... The agency is even co-sponsoring math and programming contests run by TopCoder, a Connecticut company whose matches attract geeks from all over the world.

But only two of 70 TopCoder finalists were U.S. citizens in 2009. Twenty came from China and 10 from Russia. Eastern Europeans also did well. The winner of the algorithm competition was an 18-year-old student from China, Bin Jin, who calls himself "crazyb0y."