Commentary: Olympic fever should extend to math contests

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 23, 2012 

What's most interesting about the 100-country International Mathematical Olympiad (IMO) that took place this month in Mar del Plata, Argentina, was not that Asian students won the top prizes — they often do — but the fact that the event went virtually unnoticed in our part of the world.

While the July 4-16 math tournament got widespread media coverage in Singapore, South Korea, China and other Asian countries, it drew little attention in U.S. and Latin American media.

Our TV networks are already sending teams of reporters to cover javelin throws, archery and synchronized swimming competitions at the upcoming London Olympics, but few, if any, sent a correspondent to the Mar del Plata math tournament. For the record, the 53rd annual IMO tournament of high school students was won by the six-member team of South Korea, which won six gold medals, followed by the teams of China (2nd), the United States (3rd), Russia (4th), Canada (5th), Thailand (6th) and Singapore (7th).

Among the Latin American countries, the best team was that of Peru, which ranked 16th, followed by Brazil (19th), Mexico (31st), Colombia (46th), Costa Rica (46th), Argentina (54th), Chile (59th), Venezuela (91st) and Cuba (95th).

Individually, the top prize was won by Lim Jeck, 17, of Singapore, who won a gold medal with a perfect score and became an instant media star in his home country.

Argentina, this year's IMO host country, is a case study of how little attention is paid to education in many Latin American countries.

Most Argentine newspapers published only a few paragraphs about the math competition, if any, and most of it was buried in their society or culture pages. Neither President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, nor the country's education minister, nor any other top-level government official attended the event's inauguration.

At a time when many international studies show that well-trained teachers are the single most important tool to improve countries' education standards, garbage collectors and truck drivers in Argentina make much more money than teachers.

As I learned during a visit to Argentina a few weeks ago, truck drivers in that country make 2.8 times the minimum wage, garbage collectors 2.6 times the minimum wage, and teachers 1.3 times the minimum wage. A teacher working double shifts makes 2.59 times the minimum wage, still less than a truck driver or garbage collector.

Largely because of Argentina's failure to evaluate its teachers and offer merit pay to the best qualified ones, education standards have plummeted in recent years.

The country, once among Latin America's best educated ones, today ranks near the bottom in the international standardized PISA test of 15-year-old students, significantly behind Chile, Uruguay, Mexico, Colombia and other countries in the region.

In Mexico, while teachers make more than garbage collectors and truck drivers, a government crusade to improve education standards suffered a major blow earlier this month when only 30 percent of teachers attended a national teacher evaluation test. Earlier government plans to start a merit pay system for good teachers are now in limbo.

In case you are wondering whether there's any relation between math and science education and countries' economic growth, there is. This year's IMO winner South Korea, which was much poorer than virtually all Latin American countries only fifty years ago, last year registered 13,500 international patents for new inventions, whereas all Latin American countries together only 500, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

In recent days, following President Barack Obama's announcement that he plans to create an elite teachers corps that will pay professors of math and science an extra $20,000 a year, many Latin American educators stressed that without economic incentives and greater academic requirements, it will be hard to attract good teachers for Latin American schools.

My opinion: In the growing East vs. West battle for the best academic standards, we in the media share a large of responsibility for not putting education at the top of the public agenda.

There is nothing wrong with massive press coverage of the London Olympics. But when we focus our entire attention on sports competitions and virtually ignore math tournaments, we create only one kind of role models, and fail to glorify those who are the most likely to make the scientific discoveries that can improve our living standards or conquer diseases. It's time to glorify Olympic math champions, just as we glorify Olympic swimmers.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Andres Oppenheimer is a Latin America correspondent for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132; email: aoppenheimer@miamiherald.com.

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