Wednesday, November 14, 2007

We're Number 18!

Every international comparison of US students with students in certain Asian countries presents an opportunity for self-flagellation. A new analysis by Gary Phillips of the American Institutes for Research is no different.

Phillips used various statistical techniques to convert the scores other nations achieved on the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) test to scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the NAEP, or "nation's report card" test that a sample of American 4th, 8th, and 12th graders take every few years). Specifically, he compared 8th grade mathematics scores. The results show that the U.S. is right in the middle of the pack. About two-thirds (65%) of 8th graders scored at or above the basic level, 27% scored at or above proficient, and 6% scored at or above advanced.

This isn't awful (the Jordanian equivalent of 8th graders came up with a 35-11-2 basic-proficient-advanced split on this international comparison, and those in the Philippines came up with 10-1-0). It puts the US squarely in a cohort with other nations such as Finland, England and New Zealand.

However, Americans seldom like to view themselves as being mediocre. The true stars on this international comparison are, no surprise, the industrialized Asian nations. Singapore's split is 96-73-34, South Korea's is 93-65-26, Hong Kong's is 94-64-23, Japan's is 92-61-24, and Chinese Taipei (which I understand to be the politically neutral name for "Taiwan") posts 87-61-31. Interestingly, the Flemish part of Belgium is fairly close to the Asian tigers, posting an 88-51-15 split. You can see the whole report here.

I think there are two key take-aways from this analysis. Many Americans know we have a problem with educating our most disadvantaged students. They still believe, however, that our top quarter of students is doing pretty well. This comparison shows that to be completely false. The top quarter of American 8th graders is equivalent to the "top" three-quarters of Singaporean students. Six times the proportion of Singaporean students test at the advanced level, compared with American students. Even the folks in Flanders are managing to educate two-and-a-half times the proportion of students to the advanced level as here in the U.S. There is no reason the top quarter of American students can't be educated to the advanced level, defined as being able to generalize and synthesize concepts and principles in the key mathematical areas (such as statistics and probability, algebra and functions, etc.) The fact that only 6% of American 8th graders score at this level shows that American schools are failing to challenge their top students. This is a problem, since knowing how to generalize and synthesize are key skills for competing in the knowledge economy, and given the state of American high schools, it's unlikely that kids who aren't figuring these things out in 8th grade will get much better at them later on.

Second, if we're serious about raising mathematical achievement, we need to look at what these Asian countries are doing. This isn't a new idea; periodically, some school district tries to implement "Singapore Math" or what have you. But in education, as in any social science field, it is difficult to separate out which factor works. Perhaps a certain kind of instruction is key, or perhaps Singaporean students watch a lot less television. We'll examine studies of Singapore math in some coming Gifted Exchange posts to see what people have come up with.


Anonymous said...

Until administrators quit forcing teachers to try to teach in a classroom with an IQ range of about 70 to 140, we will never be competitive internationally. We are losing our brightest students because they are forced to sit in boredom while the teacher spends the vast majority of her time with the bottom 20% of the class.

Until administrators get over political correctness disease and admit that not all kids can accomplish the same thing.. education is doomed and very likely so is our country.

Mediocre for all doesn't work in the international economy.

GotRocks said...

I guess the first step towards getting to a Singapore-type system is getting our education system to put learning first, and all of the other garbage (like self-esteem, racial and gender balances, sex-ed, etc.) where it belongs.

So far, the priorities of the educational establishment seem to include just about everything, EXCEPT learning.

Anonymous said...

My son attended NEST+m - a New York City "Talented and Gifted" (TAG) K-12 public school. The founders of the school used Singapore Math in K-5th grade. In 6th grade we relocated out of state to Florida and we're so shocked at the horrible public school programs, that we put our child in what is considered the top private school in the area. In order to do that, we had to take the SSAT for admissions. Our no prep, going in cold, "baseline test run" scores were so high that we didn't need to do any more admissions testing. We believe that his Singapore Math training gave him a certain deeper understanding of the real mathmatic concepts, versus students who simply learn to solve a specific type of question in a specific type of way. We will miss Singapore math very much because our new school is excellent, but the focused "deep dive" into a smaller niumber of topics is better suited for bright children. I also believe that it was better for those that struggled with math as well. They got to really try and get their heads around the concepts, instead of scratching the surface and then beig forced to move on. There was also a certain "organization" of the topics that gave you a sense of building blocks that left you feling like they were clearly leading to a very strong mathmateical fortress. With some American programs, the topics can seem related, but do not have that "builidng a fortress over the long term" feeling. And I can't resist saying it - NCLB is fine for weak schools and programs, but is killing the great public programs out there.

Anonymous said...

Apologies for the typos above! I'm not a very good typist!