Even our best kids lag in math--middle schools to blame
By Jay Mathews
I am usually among the skeptics when international comparisons make U.S. schoolchildren look as if they spend their class time playing video games. I am not entirely sold on the conclusions of a new study just published in the journal Education Next.
But there is enough believable bad stuff there to wonder why, after many years of mediocre results, we have not discarded our notoriously free and easy way of educating middle school students.
The study by Eric A. Hanushek and Paul E. Peterson of Stanford's Hoover Institution, and University of Munich economist Ludger Woessmann, reveals that only 6 percent of U.S. eighth and ninth graders score at an accomplished level in math on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). As a test, PISA has its problems, but the authors link its results closely to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the most reliable America test of student achievement, and provide what looks to be a fair comparison.
We rank behind 30 other countries. Leading the international pack in the 2006 version of PISA was Taiwan with 28 percent of students reaching the accomplished level in math. Hong Kong, South Korea and Finland had at least 20 percent.
The authors anticipated some complaints from us skeptics, such as, the U.S. being unfairly handicapped by its many recent immigrants and low-income minorities. The authors said, okay, let's look just at white U.S. students. The accomplished portion rose to only 8 percent. When they looked at just U.S. students with at least one parent with a college degree, the number went up only to 10.3 percent.
The authors blame our overall failure to raise standards for teaching and learning, particularly in math and science. I blame our middle schools. Elementary schools are also a problem, but the way we run middle schools has to be a prime culprit, since we are talking about results for eighth and ninth graders.
For more than two decades our middle schools have followed a warm and welcoming system of dividing students into teams, with each team having a math teacher, a science teacher, an English teacher and a social studies teacher whom they saw each day for roughly equal periods.
The educators who conceived this approach felt it introduced surly and fragile early adolescents to all the major high school subjects, without the pressures of SAT tests or Advanced Placement courses or college admission competition. Nobody cared what kind of grades they got in middle school. The colleges would never see them. As the new study shows, this system has not produced much progress, at least in math.
Middle school students have had to take state tests under the No Child Left Behind law, but those results rarely had any effect on their grades or their chances of being promoted. Many middle schools introduced Algebra I, a high school course, to eighth grade, but the NAEP data suggest that it has not been well taught.
Brookings Institution scholar Tom Loveless, an expert on both PISA and math education, told me "middle schools once offered special, accelerated classes to high achieving math students. Today, the push has been to make those classes available to all students--or not to offer them at all."
This study includes an intriguing analysis thrashing those who say NCLB hurts advanced kids because of its emphasis on basic proficiency. If that were true, they say, "we should see a decline in the percentage of students performing at NAEP's advanced level subsequent to passage of the 2002 federal law. In mathematics, however, the opposite has happened. The percentage performing at the advanced level was only 3.7 percent in 1996 and 4.7 percent in the year 2000."
The authors conclude that the standards have to go higher and the teaching has to get better. That makes sense to me, but ignores a social bias in this country. Careers in math and science lack the prestige they enjoy in Asia and parts of Europe. I am not sure how we fix that. The authors insist our solution to date is the wrong one.
"Admittedly, the United States could simply ignore the needs of its own young people and continue to import highly skilled scientists and engineers who were prepared by better-performing schools abroad," they say. "But even such a heartless, irresponsible strategy relies on both the nature of immigration policies and the absence of better opportunities abroad, two things on which we might not want the future to depend."
So what did your middle schooler learn this year? In most cases, not much. That may, finally, have to change.
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MY COMMENT: Just a few countries, not so in reading and science, strong evidence for effect of poverty, other factors, percentage or absolute numbers?
A look at the full report, available at the Education Next website, suggests that these researchers looked hard to find evidence of a STEM crisis, and kept looking until they found a statistic that seemed to show it.
The math gap is caused by just a few very high-scoring countries– Taiwan with 28%, Hong Kong with 24% and Korea with 23% of students at the advanced level. Without these countries, US children with at least one parent with a college education do pretty well. Our highest scoring state, Massachusetts, has 17% of its students at the advanced level, making it 5th in the world, not counting the three exceptionally high scorers.
The three highest scoring countries in math do not do nearly as well in science and reading.
Taiwan, first in math, is near the bottom of all countries in percent of students scoring in the top group in reading, and loses to all states in the US except Mississippi, and this is based on ALL American students in a state, not just those with a college-educated parent. Massachusetts would rank fourth in the world, nearly tying for third. And other states would rank highly too, again, counting ALL students.
Fifteen US states (again, all students) have a higher percentage of top science students than Korea (third in math) does.
The authors did not discuss studies that considered social class and poverty levels, and concluded that American children attending low poverty schools score very well. Bracey (2009) concluded that on the PIRLS reading test, American children attending low poverty schools (25% or less) outscored the top scoring country, Sweden. Bracey also pointed out that "if the students in schools with 24-49.9% poverty constituted a nation, it would rank fourth among the 35 participating nations" (p. 155). Payne and Biddle (1999) reported that when we consider only middle-class children who attend well-funded schools, our math scores are near the top of the world.
Tienken (2010) cites studies showing that a myriad of additional factors operate that artificially depress American students' scores on international tests, including the fact that the US tests nearly all students. Some other countries are selective – on TIMSS, this includes Russia (only native speakers of Russian), Israel (only native speakers of Hebrew), Switzerland (only highest performing regions, 16/26 cantons), Spain (excluded Cataluna), and Italy (excluded high-poverty regions). I don't know if this is true of PISA.
Finally, absolute numbers are more relevant than percentages. Tienken points out that the US had 25% of world's top science achievers on PISA, 2009. China had one percent.
Bracey, G. 2009. Education Hell: Rhetoric Versus Reality. Alexandria, VA: Educational Research Service.
Payne, K. and Biddle, B. 1999. Poor school funding, child poverty, and mathematics achievement. Educational Researcher 28 (6): 4-13.
Tienken, C. 2010. Common core state standards: I wonder? Kappa Delta Phi Record 47 (1): 14-17.