US gains in math and science ed...Really?

US gains in math and science ed...Really?

Summary: Results from the 2007 TIMSS, or Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, were released this week with many outlets touting US gains over our fairly dismal performance on the last survey in 2003. According to the New York Times,American fourth- and eighth-grade students made solid achievement gains in math in recent years and in two states showed spectacular progress, an international survey of student achievement released on Tuesday found.


Results from the 2007 TIMSS, or Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, were released this week with many outlets touting US gains over our fairly dismal performance on the last survey in 2003. According to the New York Times,

American fourth- and eighth-grade students made solid achievement gains in math in recent years and in two states showed spectacular progress, an international survey of student achievement released on Tuesday found. Science performance was flat.

My state in particular was cited for its improvements:

Students in Massachusetts and Minnesota, which participated in a special study that attributed a score to the states as if they were individual countries,also demonstrated stellar achievement, outperforming classmates in all but a handful of countries.

In eighth-grade science, for instance, Massachusetts students, on average, scored higher than or equal to students in all countries but Singapore and Taiwan.

It's fortunate that the researchers recognized the need to find more valid comparisons between the highly heterogeneous US population and those of "city-states like Singapore and Hong Kong, which have populations of 4.5 million and 6.9 million people, respectively," but I have to say that I'm surprised that even Massachusetts has made significant gains given the lack of depth in education across the board.

Massachusetts, for example, has more state-defined learning standards than any other state in the Union. What this means is that we cover an awful lot of content with our students, but struggle with mastery because we can't cover anything in depth as is the case in Asian curricula.

Don't get me wrong...I'm thrilled with the gains and I know that teachers in my district (and, obviously, countless others) are working very hard to improve the quality of education. Yet the number of standards we need to include in our curricula or on the state standardized tests has certainly not decreased and we still see too many students attempting (and failing) to apply mathematical concepts in secondary school that they simply have not mastered in primary school.

One item to note: there is finally movement among the educational leadership to reexamine our standards, simultaneously raising the bar for achievement yet focusing on understanding key ideas with appropriate depth and rigor before moving students into new applications. If we can continue moving in this direction, we will see even more drastic gains within the international community.

Topic: Enterprise Software

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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  • Malaysian textbooks

    A Malaysian student just brought in his old pre-college textbooks to my friend's secondhand bookshop. Glancing through them was nostalgia for me - the problems & examples were just like those when I was studying science, forty years ago, before school streaming stopped & the dumbing down started.
    For further evidence, compare the venerable Schaum's Study Guides of yesteryear with the pale shadows they have become today.
    • That is correct.....

      And the parents of the students is where the allowing of the dumbing down began. The problem with education does not soley lie with the teachers, it is mostly the failure of parenting over the years that has caused the declines. Seems parents rather have their kids get good grades than to be challenged and recieve lower grades. Also the dysfuntion of alot of kids in our schools creates a distraction for others to become cool and dysfunctional as well. Its just not cool in America to be smart and that is a huge problem. Kids rather be the pimp daddy than be the pimp brainiac and parents have accepted that from their kids or the parents are just no where to be found.
      • It also lies with the funding mechanism...

        ?that pays public schools based upon "average daily attendance" instead of quality or performance. The economic incentive is for warehousing warm bodies, and not producing keen intellects.
        • Never heard of that....

          But I have heard of funding based on standardized testing which I believe is part of no child left behind. Here in Ohio we fund our schools through levies that are voted on every few years. Honestly I don't think funding is the issue. I have studied local schools and what they pay per pupil and funding is not the thing that brings intellects out of the wood work. Cincinnati Public Schools pay much more than my local district, but they are dismal compared to my local district. You have that American mentallity of "throw money at it" and it will all be good. I think that is another misconception that has just prolonged the problem. It comes down to good parents that are involved in their kids life. Not saying that will always produce an intellect, but it sure is a major foundation of it. Take a look at the inner city kids, most do not have mom and dad at home or even a mother or a father that cares much about their kids. Its a disease and our government backs it up with financial aid for anyone that fails. In America you do not get something for success, only for failure. Money is not the root of all evil, bad parents are.
          • Reward perfomance. Fund superior schools.

            I think his point was that the schools who are achieving excellence should be the ones being rewarded with extra funding. He was saying tie standardized performance results to school funding.

            Also, I agree that many schools are really just warehousing bodies or providing child care for working parents. When a student can graduate high school with only a second grade reading comprehension, this fact becomes obvious. How many of us have watched a high school graduate struggle counting change for a dollar?

            Yes, parents are partly to blame for not providing focus and inspiration to their children while attending school, but schools should not be handing diplomas to kids who are very nearly functionally illiterate. In my mind, kids should stay in high school until they can pass standard graduation exams in every subject. We are doing them a disservice by releasing them into a modern world where minimal skills and knowledge are required for survival. We are setting them up for failure in life.

            In fact, my ideal school system would require demonstrated proficiency each time the student advances to another school. This would require testing at the end of grade school, at the end of middle school, and at the end of high school. You are held back in each until you can prove you are ready to move on.

            Of course, my ideal school system would extend public schooling all the way to a 4 year degree. When our public school system was created, a high school diploma was enough to get a job that could support a family. This is a drastically different time we live in and supporting oneself is extremely difficult with anything less than a 4 year degree, now. For this reason, kids should be schooled until they achieve that level. It would raise the skill level of our work force and create a brighter future for the entire nation.
          • Extending public school to a degree - Why would you want that?

            The only result would be 4-year-degrees that are as meaningless as high school diplomas are now.
          • If we tightened up we wouldn't need degrees

            Not to make a good living anyway. The dirth of meaning to a HS diploma is one of the reasons it isn't enough. As I understand it the skill sets of kids graduating HS in the 50s were comparable to an MS today.

            I wont take to bait on funding "successful" schools. Many times this success is due to the local cultural values, financial status and parental education than the schools them selves. Folks we gotta change our society not just our schools.
          • testing for successful schools

            What I have to say is politically incorrect. When I teach I maintain the policy of my district and keep these opinions mostly to myself, since they would interfere in the daily efforts needed in the classroom today. Actually, I guess that I am venting with little actual strong belief in these opinions that I express. My opinions are actually questions that I need answering about what is needed to teach, not strongly held positional beliefs. Read on if you dare. A dialogue, especially with factual support, would help me change my mind to a better, more appropriate positional belief.

            When standardized testing and "No Child Left Behind" became the norm by which school and teacher success was judged, teachers were sold a bill of goods: (1) kids who couldn't pass the test would be remediated and even held back if necessary so that they could catch up; (2) teachers would be supported in their decisions to use professional judgment in teaching; (3) test results were to guide teachers in making sound educational decisions and were not to be used to judge teacher performance (i.e., tests were a measure of student performance); and (4) other assurances that did not pan out. Within the first few years of required testing it became apparent (1)that teachers and schools would be judged primarily on student testing performance; (2) that there would be minimal to no assistance in remediating students; (3) that teachers must teach to the test and all other activities were too time-consuming to be tolerated; and (4) that holding students back was not to be done--the majority of students must advance even if they lacked the appropriate skills. Students cared little about the tests and were stressed about the imposition and inconvenience. However, since the accountability for passing was on the teacher's shoulders--not the student's--students felt no responsibility for learning or passing. The safety nets put in place to prevent them from actually receiving an F and being forced to repeat and eventually actually learn a subject meant that students could just bide their time and the teachers would teach the minimum that was needed in such a repetitive manner that the student could pass in spite of his lack of interest. So students relaxed; teachers were stressed, intimidated; pressured and denigrated by all until they conformed; taught the minimal necessary to pass the test; and received no recognition for any of the hard work that did even under these conditions (remember, bored students are more difficult to manage.) Teachers were expected to stay after school and tutor, call a set number of parents each week, plan for 6 classes each day and attend and work extracurricular plays, sports, and workshops to learn techniques that there was no time to try because they took time away from teaching towards the test. In all this, teachers worked enthusiastically to motivate and teach students the subject matter as well as the myriad of other lessons that teachers are required to teach; they attended and worked the extra hours required; they counseled students and cared and nurtured. Yet the public still insisted that the teachers were to blame that students were not learning and so teachers did not deserve the pay they got. The solution to the public perception of overpaid teachers was to extend the school year whenever a pay raise was passed and to cut the budget for class funds so that teacher dug deeper into their own pockets for the supplies needed to teach better lessons.

            Most teachers teach. Yes some are better; teaching is as much an art as a science. The rapport that is established with the students is a huge component in a teacher's success to motivate students to learn. Actual subject matter knowledge is sometimes a detriment since students do not like Geeks/nerds/experts so much as someone they relate to emotionally. Classroom management requires the ability to manipulate/manage people to get them to do what you want--another art--since students no longer behave because they fear not to, but because they want to. And there is usually a few students who do not want to no matter what or how skilled the teacher. There are even a few who cannot. All in the same classroom.

            In a private school, parents know that they will have paid money that is not refunded if students cannot achieve or behave. So parents maintain some control over the student and insist that they learn. In public schools, the children with problems that private schools will not take on are put in the same classroom with those who either elected to remain in a public school, or are too poor to get into a private school, or find better teachers and curriculum in public schools, or who find other advantages to a public school. Parental support runs the gamut of extremely helpful, to uninvolved in their child's life--let alone schooling, to negatively influencing the child to not achieve.

            The public perception with all its criticism filters down to teachers so that they are pressured, criticized, and intimidated by the idea that if only teachers would actually teach, then student achievement would improve; if they would get more education/training then they would do a better job of increasing test scores; and that their professional judgment must be second-guessed and controlled by the need to teach for the test using an imposed curriculum and even an imposed calendar of class activities and lessons. (Whether the student is ready for the next lesson or not, the calendar says this lesson is to be taught on this date.whether the lesson will remediate or not, the imposed curriculum says teach this lesson now--but do not hold a student back to repeat the lesson if he doesn't learn it.)

            Effective schools research showed that students learned best when local decisions were made locally, when students were held to high expectations to achieve, and when administrators recognized and retained good teachers and then supported them. Mediocre teachers could be trained to be more effective and retained and supported. Those who were poor teachers or couldn't hack the program with additional training and mentoring could be let go. Effective schools were considered the best schools.

            Effective schools were replaced with NCLB and the push towards merit pay, charter schools and vouchers: all designed to strip support away from public schools and place the money into the pockets of religious private schools that do not teach the standards tested by NCLB and that do not get judged by who passes a nationally standardized test and whose teachers are paid less than public school teachers and are subject to church and parental intimidation for what to teach, how to teach and how to grade one's child.

            whew! nuff said. Big question: Did the increase in math and science achievement result from NCLB? If so, then I really do need to rethink these opinions!
          • The standard in our state.

            You get a set amount of money for every kid registered as of Oct 1; performance in testing is used to determine where "extra" money goes, and it goes the the schools that score low.

            The aid isn't to reward failure, it is to supply more/better resources to help better educate the lower scoring kids. Problem is, more/better educational resources don't help, when the kids and/or their parents don't value education.
          • You're leaving out local politics.

            When states take over failing districts, they discover the large amount wasted on cronies and programs of marginal utility.

            One of the reasons money doesn't solve the problem is that much money is wasted.
            Anton Philidor
          • Funding

            Nationally, there is little correlation between funding and performance. In fact, in many regions there is a negative correlation. Some of our best funded (per-pupil) systems have the most abysmal test scores and graduation rates.

            Although no educrat, er, child left behind offers federal monies, the bulk of most public education is funded by state & county taxes. In most states, each school district is funded proportionally by how many students attend on a daily average, hence ?average daily attendance?. (Google that and you?ll be bombarded with statistics)

            You are correct that parents make the ultimate difference, and this is one reason why private schools far outperform public ones; if parents care enough to sacrifice in order to send their children to private school, they also care enough to make sure that their kids perform well.
          • Money Wouldn't Hurt & Is Necessary

            Yes, money is not the only problem and only one of many. But to think that more money isn't required to get the education system up to par is just naive. Many of the "good" school in urban suburbs are spending $12,000 a year per student, while many "bad" schools in the inner cities are spending more like $6000 a year per student. Considering the problems of the inner city schools, it's obvious that you need to spend more to just be even with the richer schools. The bottom level school also need to spend that money wisely and demand results when the money is given to them. But they do need it.
          • Where I am from.....

            The inner city schools are paying huge amounts per pupil and the much better suburban schools are spending less than the inner city and by far outperforming them. It does take money to run a school, but no amount of money is gonna make that kid appreciate a good education period. If the kid is hanging on the streets and joining a gang you could spend $100,000 on him and he probably won't give a damn. Things have to go in order or they just don't work. The bad parent is the start, then the funding can follow for those that will use it wisely. Good teachers avoid these schools because they see themselves as a teacher and not a "child care giver" and their safety is also another problem. If parents knew how to raise decent kids with some values then good teachers would not have a problem teaching in these schools. And the funny thing is, is that many of the inner city schools pay better because they can't keep the teachers hanging around. Its a societal problem and not a monetary problem. I just don't understand how that is not obvious to most people.
          • Absolutely.

            You nailed it.
    • Yeah...

      I've got three kids, all in sixth grade (my wife was feeling very efficient the year they were born...) and what they're covering in math is what I had in <b>fourth</b> grade forty-five years ago.
      This is what you get when you impose the pretense, as is done here in Wake County, North Carolina, that the phrase "all [kids] are created equal" means "all kids are equally smart," mix all kids of all abilities in a single classroom, and then teach at a pace even the dumbest ones can follow.
      Judging from my kids say, even then the dumb ones just barely get it and the smart ones get convinced that math (and science, and education in general) are terminally boring and just quit paying attention.
      The objective of the school system is no longer to teach kids. It's to get a high enough percentage of the kids to pass various tests to make sure the state gets Federal education money. And the only way the system can do that is by taking resources away from teaching kids who could most benefit by it and devoting them to kids who can, just barely, be coached into getting a passing grade on the tests. Ultimately, you get what you pay for--in this case, a lot of smart sixth grade kids doing fourth grade math for the third year in a row and a lot of dumb kids trained to solve, by rote, a narrow class of problems.
      The Tinkerbell Theory--"wishing will make it so"--is delusional, but it seems to be the basis for the policies of the Wake Count school system. Kids really do come in a range of abilities.
      Henrik Moller
  • Great, now lets fix the other 48 states! nt

  • RE: US gains in math and science ed...Really?

    cepedajoe: "History is being rewritten to match politically correct liberal ideals; science is rewritten to ignore facts and evidence and to base itself on theories. Math, well, you ask a high school graduate to complete a basic equation, and you'll have your answer.
    I believe we need impartial testing and I also believe we need to remove the so-called department of education and start all over."

    Excuse me. What the hell are you talking about? If you want to see science ignoring facts and evidence, take a look at conservative-leaning religious schools. The cancer that is impartial testing was brought upon us by a conservative agenda. Also, TFA states that Mass. had some serious gains in education. Guess which way that state leans, politically.
    Anonymous Benefactor
    • Same song, 1234567890324567823456 verse

      cepedajoe is spouting the ubiquitous Neocon drivel. My son and daughter are both Math teachers and these knuckle dragging bigots make me sore every time they sound off about "all the public schools do is indoctrinate about evolution and global warming". What these imbeciles really represent is a return to Aristotelian thinking. It's what Galileo butted heads with the Catholics over, the ancient that you don't need to test anything, you can arrive at the truth by pure reason. You'll hear it stated as "common sense" or "thinking for myself", but that's what they are talking about. That makes Beck, Hannity and O'Reilly "experts" on every subject under the sun with no training or background in anything except small-market television. If their thinking every gains any public infrluence we are headed for a dark age surpassing the one Galileo had to deal with. They need to get their home-schooled butts off the internet and go visit a library.
      • So.....

        To you anyone that thinks different is a "knuckle dragging idiot" as to say we are primates? I think this is exactly what is wrong with America these days. We used to get people on the right that wouldn't hear anything other than their own ideas and now we have the left overwhelmingly acceptting this practice and running full throttle with it. You are the type to call out the fox news clan because they have strong ideas about stuff, but then you go and do the same damn thing yourself. Sorry but who is calling who a bigot. I like free thinking and ideas being discussed. I think what the previous post was getting at is that we are no longer allowed to bring up ideas that do not sit well with others. I hate to say it, but you are not advancing us into the future with your thinking either. People take stuff way too personal in this country and it gets in the way of having a genuine discussion about differing ideas. Its like hate is the new way to advance your agenda. Hate, Hate, Hate. Hey lets Hate somemore and call people bigots. I sure hope we don't turn this country into one not worth defending and if that happens we will all be speaking chinese or some other foreign language. Now that would be awesome wouldn't it? I would think first before you start thinking "hey I am right about everything so I can stop hearing others ideas". That will set your brain into a routine and thats when it starts to deteriorate. Keep asking yourself what works and doesn't and your mind will stay on top of its game. Remember the brain hates routines, it love diversity.
      • Bigotry is OK if a liberal is one ...

        It is sheer arrogance to assert that religion is not being indoctrinated in the public schools. Any honest assessment of what has been going on in the American public school system would require an acknowledge that the official/legalized religious faith of America is Secular Humanism (i.e., "liberalism" in coined version). But asking a secular humanist to be honest would be asking them to go against their code and admit there is such a thing as "right and wrong." An honest assessment of the science and social fields in public schools would mandate the statement that only Darwinian Evolution, a theory that is not scientific, is being taught as scientific fact. Anyone who expresses dissent with the non-scienfitic theory of Darwinian Evolution is removed from staff or, if a student, chastised as "unteachable." What the Catholics were in Galileo's day is what the Secular Humanists/Liberals are to us today.