Singapore up, Finland down

Singapore’s students are the best in the world in math, science and reading, proclaims Quartz, which has been crunching the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) numbers. “Finland has fallen from its perch (though it remains a very high performer).

Singapore students earn very high scores on international tests in math, science and reading.

Singapore students earn very high scores on international tests in math, science and reading.

You can compare U.S. results to other countries here.

Massachusetts and North Carolina students were tested separately.

In science, Massachusetts teens scored far above the U.S. and international average in science, and also were above average in reading and math.

The U.S. isn’t going to turn into Singapore, but perhaps more states could emulate Massachusetts.

Canada also does well on PISA, while spending less on education than the U.S.

U.S. math scores are falling

screen-shot-2016-12-05-at-10-25-17-am2+2=??? Don’t ask an American 15-year-old. The U.S. ranks near the bottom in math compared to 35 industrialized nations, according to the latest PISA results.

U.S. scores fell in math and remained about the same in reading and science, near the international average.

PISA is given to 15-year-olds in 72 countries.

Higher performing nations teach fewer math topics in greater depth, Andreas Schleicher, who runs the test, told journalists. Students master a topic and then move on, rather than cycling back to the same concept each year, he said.

PISA results matter, writes Robert Rothman. “PISA is designed to measure how well students can apply what they have learned to real-world problems.” In a follow-up study, Canadian students’ results correlated with their success in college and the job market.

The usual excuses don’t apply, he argues. U.S. students aren’t more likely to live in poverty than children in other OECD countries. U.S. 15-year-olds are slightly less likely to be enrolled in school.

screen-shot-2016-12-05-at-10-25-39-amHong Kong has lots of poverty — and high scores for all students. Estonia also is an equity champion.

The U.S. improved on measures of equity, notes Amanda Ripley in the New York Times. “In 2006, socioeconomic status had explained 17 percent of the variance in Americans’ science scores; in 2015, it explained only 11 percent, which is slightly better than average for the developed world.”

PISA scores don’t correlate with education spending, Ripley observes. The U.S. spends more than most OECD countries for average or below-average performance. Malta spends about the same — and outperforms the U.S.

Luxembourg is the biggest spender, with mediocre results, followed by Switzerland, which has high scores. Taiwan, which spends less than average, and Singapore, which spends more, have similar, very high math scores.

Ripley summarizes what matters:

Generally speaking, the smartest countries tend to be those that have acted to make teaching more prestigious and selective; directed more resources to their neediest children; enrolled most children in high-quality preschools; helped schools establish cultures of constant improvement; and applied rigorous, consistent standards across all classrooms.

“I’m confident the Common Core is going to have a long-term impact,” Schleicher said. “Patience may be the biggest challenge.”

STEM apprenticeships should be the future

Apprenticeships aren’t just for future construction workers, writes New America’s Nneka Jenkins Thompson on Ed Central. It’s a form of paid experiential learning that can help prepare students for well-paid, high-demand STEM careers.

A Corning technician tests Gorilla glass.

A Corning technician tests Gorilla glass.

Corning’s Technology Talent Pipeline pays students to study engineering and science at Corning Community College, while they work at least one day a week in company labs. “One hundred percent of Pipeline apprentices have transitioned to technician positions at Corning and remain at the company as full-time worker,” writes Thompson.

The company also has sponsored a new P-TECH school that will let teens train for technical careers while earning community college credits.

STEM requires a strong foundation in math, she writes. Yet only 20 percent of students who took the ACT in 2016 were prepared for entry-level math, ACT estimates.

“Apprenticeship can boost students’ confidence while building competence,” writes Thompson. Students learn to learn from mistakes, which are expected in hands-on learning environments. “When students see the results of what their own hands produce, they grow in confidence.”

Half of jobs that require STEM skills are in manufacturing, health care, or construction. Pay averages $53,000 a year — without a college degree.

Here’s more on the new model of apprenticeships.

U.S. kids lag Asians in math, science


U.S. fourth-graders aren’t improving in math and science, according to the new Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) report. Eighth-graders showed some improvement, but aren’t catching up with high flyers in Singapore, Korea, Japan and elsewhere in Asia. reports Emma Brown in the Washington Post.

“In Singapore, for example, 50 percent of students scored high enough to be considered advanced in math, compared with just 14 percent of U.S. students who reached that benchmark,” she writes.

On TIMSS Advanced, which looks at 12th graders who take advanced physics and math, males scored significantly higher than female students, notes Brown. “Among fourth- and eighth-grade students, the gender gap has narrowed or closed in math and science.”

Sixty countries participate in TIMSS.

Among countries with slipping scores are Finland — yes, Finland! — Germany and the Netherlands, notes Quartz.

U.S. eighth-graders are improving in geometry and algebra, but doing worse in “problems of data and chance,” reports Sarah D. Sparks in Ed Week. “Similarly, U.S. students improved significantly in their performance on life science and biology topics, but their scores in physics and earth sciences stagnated.”

Overall, TIMSS have increased the depth and rigor of their math and science curricula over time, according to Ina V.S. Mullis, co-executive director of IEA’s TIMSS and PIRLS International Study Center. “When we started [conducting TIMSS] in 1995, our math was all content—algebra, geometry—and in science, chemistry, physics, but now we also include cognitive demands, thinking skills.”

To improve math ed, cut excess numbers

From The Onion, here’s how U.S. schools can improve math education.

Pedal power raises math grades


Students can choose to pedal during class. Photo: Paul Cory/Wake County Public Schools

Pedal power is helping kids pay attention and learn more math at a North Carolina middle school, reports BBC News.

Bethany Lambeth’s students had trouble sitting still. She put 10 bike pedals under desks and let them try to burn off energy quietly during lessons.

Students said it improved their focus.

“They were able to recall a lot more of what I was saying and because they participated more they understood more and they did better in tests.”

As a result she says their test grades demonstrably improved from when the pedals were introduced in April compared to earlier in the school year.

The school hopes to buy bike pedals for more classrooms.

Higher math: Who needs it?

Stop requiring all students to learn advanced algebra, geometry and trigonometry, argues David Edwards, who teaches math at the University of Georgia.

It’s a myth that the economy needs everyone to master higher math, he argues in the Foundation for Economic Education blog.

Even “the vast majority of scientists, engineers and actuaries” use only Excel and eighth-grade math, defined as “arithmetic, and a little bit of algebra, statistics and programming,” writes Edwards.

When Accenture was recruiting math and computer science majors at UGA, Edwards invited them to speak to his Math for Computer Science class.

After they finished, I asked the consultants: So, what mathematics do you actually use? They sheepishly responded: None. So, I asked them: What computer science do you actually use? Again the answer was: None. They were only interested in math or computer science majors as a convenient filter!

“Higher mathematics is central to a serious higher education,” Edwards believes. However, this applies only a “minute fraction” of students:  He envisions a Harvard philosophy major.

The argument — popular in math departments — that math helps students “think clearly” is “self-serving nonsense,” Edwards writes. “In sports there is the concept of the specificity of skills: if you want to improve your racquetball game, don’t practice squash! I believe the same holds true for intellectual skills.”

What do you think? If students were competent in arithmetic, with a bit of algebra, statistics and programming — and Excel — would they be good enough?

‘Explain your thinking’ can backfire

Image result for explaining math answers cartoon

When students explain their thinking, they may be “justifying stuff that’s wrong,” says Bethany Rittle-Johnson, a Vanderbilt psychology professor.

Her analysis of 85 peer-reviewed studies found that self-explanation can cement misunderstandings, reports Liana Heitin in Education Week. It “seemed to focus students’ attention on their preexisting theories … and may have reduced attention to new information and evidence that contradicted their theories,” the research review noted.

“The general recommendation is you get kids to explain right information, that’s step one. And then it can be helpful to tell kids [that] something is wrong and have them explain why it’s wrong,” Rittle-Johnson said. “That’s different than me getting a wrong answer and explaining to you why it’s right.”

Common Core math standards ask students to “make sense of problems” and “construct viable arguments,” writes Heitin. “Because of this, many teachers have put more emphasis on having students explain the thinking behind their problem-solving.”

Core math doesn’t add up in California

California’s Common Core math standards are less rigorous than the state’s old standards, writes Wayne Bishop, a Cal State LA math professor, in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune.

The old standards, released in 1997, were written by Stanford math professors who wanted eighth graders — not just the private school kids — to learn algebra, he writes. The new standards stress verbal skills.

. . . the new test requires students to answer follow-up questions and perform a task that shows their research and problem-solving skills. . . . Any student with weak reading and writing skills is unfairly assessed. That is especially problematic for English learners.

Common Core reflects the belief that “mathematics is best learned through students’ exploration of lengthy ‘real world’ problems rather than the artificial setting of a competent teacher teaching a concept followed by straightforward applications thereof,” writes Bishop. In reality, “traditional (albeit contrived) word problems lead to better retention and use of the mathematics involved.”

In addition, Common Core “expects students to use nonstandard arithmetic algorithms . . .  in place of the familiar ones; e.g., borrow/carry in subtraction/addition and vertical multiplication with its place-value shift with successive digits,” writes Bishop.

He recommends Stephen Colbert’s “delightful derision” of Core confusion.

Pro loves football, math


Baltimore Ravens lineman John Urschel, who’s working on his PhD in math at MIT, taught a lesson to summer-school students at a Maryland high school.

It’s not unusual for star athletes to try to motivate students, but John Urschel, an offensive lineman for the Baltimore Ravens, is different. The Penn State graduate is working on a doctorate in math at MIT. He loves math.

At a Maryland high school, Urschel told summer school students that he uses quantitative thinking to guard against pass rushes, reports the Baltimore Sun.

He asked incoming ninth graders to figure out the best angle for a kicker to launch a field goal try. When they struggled with the problem, he told them to keep at it.

He recalled revising four different mistakes on the same proof — in his junior year of college, on his master’s thesis and twice in writing it for publication — before he corrected it and published it as the Urschel-Zikatanov bisection.

“People mess up,” Urschel told the class. “People get things wrong. It doesn’t mean you’re stupid. It’s just a learning process. That’s how it goes.”

When he retires from the NFL, Urschel hopes to be a math professor, teaching students and solving “really cool” puzzles.