March 14, 2017

For Pi Day, key figures on math and education in the U.S.

For almost 30 years, math enthusiasts have been taking part in festivities on March 14 to honor an infinitely long number beginning with 3.14 – the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, otherwise known as pi.

The first official Pi Day was March 14, 1988, when physicist Larry Shaw led staff and visitors to San Francisco’s Exploratorium in a celebration of all things pi-related. Since then, it has been celebrated across the globe, with universities, conferences and even pizzerias honoring the day.

To mark Pi Day, here are four findings about math and education in the United States:

1Americans rank math as one of the most important skills children need today to get ahead. In a 2014 Pew Research Center survey, respondents were asked, “Regardless of whether or not you think these skills are good to have, which ones do you think are most important for children to get ahead in the world today?” Roughly eight-in-ten U.S. adults (79%) said math is one of the most important skills needed for youth to get ahead. That placed math on par with teamwork, but slightly lower than communication and reading.

2Despite a recent dip in scores, U.S. students are more proficient in math than they were two decades ago. Four-in-ten fourth-graders and 33% of eighth-graders scored as “proficient” or “advanced” in math in 2015, according to a report released by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) last fall. By comparison, only 13% of fourth-graders and 15% of eighth-graders were rated at or above proficient in 1990. However, math scores have declined since the previous assessment in 2013, representing the first drop in proficiency in 25 years.

3Math is popular among many students, with close to half describing it as one of their favorite subjects. Nearly half of eighth-grade students in the U.S. strongly agree (21%) or agree (26%) with the statement, “Math is one of my favorite subjects,” according to a Pew Research Center analysis of NAEP data. Even more students say they like math in general, with 64% of eighth-graders agreeing with this statement. Most students also describe math as something fun and a subject that they would not like to give up, though only 13% say this strongly describes their views.

4More degrees are being awarded in mathematics and statistics. Of the 1.9 million bachelor’s degrees awarded in the U.S. in 2014-2015, about 22,000 were earned in mathematics and statistics, according to data from the Department of Education’s Digest of Education Statistics. Although this represents a small sliver of degrees conferred overall, the number of degrees awarded in mathematics and statistics has risen nearly 30% since 2010-2011. By comparison, the number of overall degrees awarded grew 10% during this time.

Why does it matter?

Mathematics and statistics degrees are helpful in a wide range of jobs across government, research institutions and industries such as finance, insurance, biotechnology, computing and others. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of mathematicians in the U.S. is projected to grow 21 percent from 2014 to 2024, much faster than the average for all occupations.

Topics: Education, Science and Innovation, Technology Adoption, Work and Employment

  1. Photo of Monica Anderson

    is a research associate focusing on internet, science and technology at Pew Research Center.

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