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A Survey of Mathematical Education. The Causes of Student Dropout, Failure, and Incompetence at the Elementary and Secondary Levels

Educational Testing Service
Publication Year:
Report Number:
ETS Research Bulletin
Document Type:
Page Count:
Subject/Key Words:
Carnegie Corporation, Dropouts, Educational Improvement, Elementary School Mathematics, Academic Failure, Mathematics Instruction, National Surveys, Secondary School Mathematics


This study sets out to survey current information and opinion relating to the question: "What are the important causes at elementary and secondary school levels of incompetence, dropout, and unnecessary failure in the study of mathematics?" The objectives of this report are to outline the findings of this survey and to suggest a program of needed research, both basic and applied. The survey collected data and opinions regarding: 1) the learner: the difficulties encountered at the present time, the way mathematics is learned, the home background, and the learner's emotional reactions and personality; 2) the teacher: the teacher's mathematics training, subject matter knowledge, teaching practices followed, and personality; and 3) the curriculum: historical background and present status at both the elementary and secondary levels. The survey employed four techniques: a survey of the literature, a questionnaire, classroom observations, and interviews. The survey of the literature alone could not provide answers to the problems of student incompetence in mathematics. Conclusions include: 1) there is a paucity of experimental evidence on the causes of math student dropout and on the origins within the learner of unnecessary failure or incompetence in mathematics, but indications are that difficulties may stem from both the cognitive and the emotional aspects of learning mathematics; 2) although there has been little actual evidence regarding the role played by the teacher in causing student dropout, unnecessary failure, and incompetence in mathematics, many authorities believe that the teacher is the key factor in this unhappy situation; 3) although there is no direct experimental evidence indicating that student dropout, unnecessary failure, and incompetence in mathematics are attributable in part to an unsatisfactory mathematics curriculum, there is much dissatisfaction with the curriculum, particularly that on the high school level. Eleven basic research projects are recommended to help correct some of the described deficiencies in mathematics education. Support for a learning-teaching seminar, attended by experts in mathematics, mathematics education and psychology, is also recommended. This group could then also counsel those conducting the other eleven research projects. (JGL)

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