U.S. math lag: It’s not just other people’s kids

Don’t blame poor kids for U.S. students’ mediocre performance on international math exams, write researchers in Education Next.  When the children of college-educated parents are compared, U.S. students do even worse than our international competitors.

Overall, the U.S. proficiency rate in math (35 percent) places the country at the 27th rank among the 34 OECD countries that participated in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). That ranking is somewhat lower for students from advantaged backgrounds (28th) than for those from disadvantaged ones (20th).

Some states — notably Massachusetts — compare well to OECD students, but they represent a small share of the U.S. population.

In Korea, 46 percent of the children of high school dropouts reach proficiency in math compared to 17 percent of U.S. children with poorly educated parents.

The U.S. ranks 30th in teaching the children of “moderately” educated parents. “The math proficiency rate (26%) for this group is again around half the rate enjoyed by Switzerland (57%), Korea (56%), Germany (52%), and the Netherlands (50%).”

Forty-three percent of U.S. children with college-educated parents are proficient in math. That’s lower than the rate for Koreans whose parents didn’t finish high school. “Countries with high proficiency rates among students from better-educated families include Korea (73%), Poland (71%), Japan (68%), Switzerland (65%), Germany (64%) and Canada (57%).”

“The U.S. education system is . . . weak at the bottom, no less weak at the middle, and just as weak with respect to educating the most-advantaged,” the analysis concludes. Or, as Education Secretary Arne Duncan said, our educational shortcomings are “not just the problems of other person’s children.”

Anxious Tunisians, math-mellow Dutch

Tunisian 15-year-olds are the most math-phobic, writes  Matt Phillips in The AtlanticArgentina, Brazil and Thailand are next on the “math anxiety” list compiled by the OECD as part of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests.

U.S. students are less anxious than the OECD average, though not as math-mellow as the Danes and the Dutch.

In the high-scoring Asian countries, there’s no particular pattern. Japanese kids are anxious, Singapore is moderately anxious, Shanghai is a hair above the median.

Math anxiety correlates with poor performance, writes Phillips. “Some believe this is because the mind is so occupied with worrying about math that it has less bandwidth” to solve problems.

“Combining a manageable amount of worry” with perseverance and a strong work ethic seems to work the best, according to an OECD analysis.

U.S. teens are above average at problem solving

PISA Problem SolvingU.S. 15-year-olds score just above the world average on PISA’s “creative problem-solving” exam, but below students in Asia, Canada, Australia, Finland, Britain and other European countries.   

“Students might be asked to identify the cheapest lines of furniture in a catalog showing different brands,” reports the New York Times. “At a more advanced level, students could be asked to develop a process for figuring out why a particular electronic device was not working properly.

American students did well at “interactive” tasks that required them to find some of the information needed to solve the problem. “This suggests that students in the United States are open to novelty, tolerate doubt and uncertainty, and dare to use intuition to initiate a solution,” the O.E.C.D. said in a statement.

But Asian students — who typically do best in math and science exams — also outperformed the U.S. students on “interactive” problems. 

“To understand how to navigate a complex problem and exercise abstract reasoning is actually a very strong point for the Asian countries,” said Francesco Avvisati, an analyst. 

The results don’t support the U.S. reputation for creativity, writes Joy Resmovits in the Huffington Post. 

Critics say the top-performing Asian countries “aren’t teaching kids to think creatively and problem-solve,” author Amanda Ripley said. “Well, now we have a test that gets closer to measuring those skills than any other — and they are killing it. Again.”

Here are some sample questions.

Finns: Equality works

“We Created a School System Based on Equality,” Finnish education and science minister Krista Kiuru tells The Atlantic.

Finnish children start school at age 7, notes Christine Gross-Loh. “They have more recess, shorter school hours than many U.S. children do (nearly 300 fewer hours per year in elementary school), and the lightest homework load of any industrialized nation.”

Yet over the past decade Finland has consistently performed among the top nations on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year olds in 65 nations and territories around the world.

Finnish schools “have small class sizes and everyone is put in the same class, but we support struggling students more than others,” says Kiuru.

Students participate in “handcrafts, cooking, creative pursuits, and sports,” she says. “Academics isn’t all kids need.”

We like to think that school is also important for developing a good self-image, a strong sensitivity to other people’s feelings … and understanding it matters to take care of others. 

. . . Teachers have a lot of autonomy. They are highly educated–they all have master’s degrees and becoming a teacher is highly competitive. We believe we have to have highly educated teachers, because then we can trust our teachers and know they are doing good work. They do have to follow the national curriculum, although we do have local curriculums as well. But we think that we’ve been able to create good results due to our national, universal curriculum.

We don’t test our teachers or ask them to prove their knowledge. But it’s true that we do invest in a lot of additional teacher training even after they become teachers.

Students don’t take national exams.

“In Finland we are starting to have some issues … in some suburban schools with more immigrants or higher unemployment,” says Kiuru. “We support those schools by investing more in them.”

At age 16, half of Finnish students choose technical-vocational training and the other half choose an academic track.

Finns slip

After acing international exams 12 years ago, Finland’s PISA rankings are slipping in reading, math and science. The Finns stopped trying to improve, educator Pasi Sahlberg, author of Finnish Lessons, tells Marc Tucker. “The huge flow of foreigners from all over the world to visit the remarkably successful Finnish schools made the authorities fearful of changing anything.”

In addition, “non-Finnish speaking immigrants are coming to Finland in larger numbers than ever before.”

Take this test, please

Take This Test (Please), writes John Merrow on Taking Note. He lists five test questions that “may explain why American students score lower than their counterparts in most other advanced nations.”

From the University of Wisconsin/Oshkosh [1] for high school students:

Jack shot a deer that weighted (sic) 321 pounds. Tom shot a deer that weighed 289 pounds.  How much more did Jack’s deer weigh then (sic) Tom’s deer?

From TeacherVision, part of Pearson :

Linda is paddling upstream in a canoe. She can travel 2 miles upstream in 45 minutes. After this strenuous exercise she must rest for 15 minutes. While she is resting, the canoe floats downstream ½ mile. How long will it take Linda to travel 8 miles upstream in this manner?

Merrow wonders whether students will be “distracted by Linda’s cluelessness,” asking “how long it will take her to figure out that she should grab hold of a branch while she’s resting in order to keep from floating back down the river.”

From a high school math test in Oregon:

There are 6 snakes in a certain valley.  The population doubles every year. In how many years will there be 96 snakes?

a. 2
b. 3
c. 4
d. 8

The new Common Core standards expect students to do more than subtract and count on their fingers by high school, notes Merrow.  

From New York state’s sample tests for eighth graders:

Triangle ABC was rotated 90° clockwise. Then it underwent a dilation centered at the origin with a scale factor of 4. Triangle A’B’C’ is the resulting image.  What parts of A’B’C’ are congruent to the corresponding parts of the original triangle?  Explain your reasoning.

No illustration is provided, says Merrow.

From PISA (for Programme in International Student Assessment), here’s a question for 15-year-olds around the world:

Mount Fuji is a famous dormant volcano in Japan.  The Gotemba walking trail up Mount Fuji is about 9 kilometres (km) long. Walkers need to return from the 18 km walk by 8 pm.

Toshi estimates that he can walk up the mountain at 1.5 kilometres per hour on average, and down at twice that speed. These speeds take into account meal breaks and rest times.

Using Toshi’s estimated speeds, what is the latest time he can begin his walk so that he can return by 8 pm?

The correct answer (11 am) was provided by 55 percent of 15-year-olds in Shanghai and only 9 percent of U.S. students. 

American kids score highest in “confidence in mathematical ability,” despite underperforming their peers in most other countries, PISA reports.  “Is their misplaced confidence the result of problems like ‘Snakes’ and others of that ilk?” asks Merrow.

PISA denial

U.S. educators are downplaying PISA results that show Asian countries excel, while the U.S. rank is slipping, writes Marc Tucker in PISA Denial. After all, few Asians are winning Nobel prizes or “starting game-changing business like Apple, Oracle, Google or Microsoft,” they argue. Maybe PISA measures things that aren’t very important, while U.S. schools are teaching creativity and innovation.

That’s sophistry, responds Tucker.  Those game-changing entrepreneurs are highly educated and innovative and creative. Their companies don’t hire creative people with mediocre reading, writing and math skills.

 They do not have to choose between well-educated and highly competent people, on the one hand, and creative and innovative people on the other. They demand and can get both. In the same person.

PISA measures “the ability to apply what is learned to real world problems” and increasingly is focusing on applying knowledge to “unanticipated, novel problems,” writes Tucker.

Creativity does not take place in a knowledge vacuum. It is typically the product of the rubbing together, so to speak, of two or more bodies of knowledge, of holding up the framework associated with one body of knowledge to another arena that it was not designed to illuminate. When that happens, odds are that the new insights, born of the application of the old framework to the novel problem, will emerge. The literature tells us that this means that you are most likely to get the kind of creativity we are most interested in from highly educated people who are deeply versed in very different arenas.

Asian educators are working hard to learn from U.S. schools, writes Tucker. They want to place more stress on individual initiative without accepting the “violence and chaos” they see as the cultural price. Some Americans want Asian achievement levels with less social conformity, but we’re not really trying to get there. Instead, “we are working hard at denial.”

PISA matters, agrees Eric Hanushek, who disposes of several excuses for U.S. mediocrity.

 While our low ranking has been seen on earlier international assessments, there are many reasons to believe that low cognitive skills (as assessed by PISA) will be increasingly important for our economic future.

We don’t have to be Singapore or Korea. If the U.S. could reach Canadian achievement levels, the average worker would earn 20 percent more, Hanushek writes.

BTW, Silicon Valley, where I live, is filled with entrepreneurs educated in India, China and elsewhere.  Forty-four percent of Silicon Valley start-ups were founded by immigrant entrepreneurs in 2012, down from 52 percent in 2005.

Shanghai students aren’t so smart

Shanghai aces the PISA exam because it excludes rural migrants and their children from high schools, writes Tom Loveless on Chalkboard.

Shanghai, “the wealthiest, most educated province in China,” is not a “model of equity,” as PISA claims, argues Loveless.

The Chinese aren’t cheating, responded Andreas Schleicher of OECD-PISA. Shanghai Normal University President Zhang Minxuan also responded. Marc Tucker of the National Center on Education and the Economy wrote a third response with Schleicher.

Christmas cheer raises scores

Christmas cheer raises test scores, concludes Brookings’ Matthew Chingos.

He crunches PISA data to show that scores are higher in countries where Christmas is a public holiday. (First step: Exclude Shanghai.)

That’s confirmed by NAEP scores on fourth-grade math performance from 1990 to 2013, which show test scores rise and fall with holiday cheer (measured by consumer spending in November and December).

Standardizing the NAEP scores and putting the spending index on a logarithmic scale implies that if we could just have about 30% more holiday spirit, our students would do as well as those in Finland!

Brilliant, writes Jay Greene. And the reason why “random-assignment and other research designs that more strongly identify causation are so important.”

PISA: No U.S. gender gap in math, science

U.S. girls do as well as boys in math and science on the PISA exam, notes Liana Heitin on Ed Week‘s Curriculum Matters.

 In many other countries, the 2012 OECD report notes, “marked gender differences in mathematics performance—in favour of boys—are observed.”

Three years ago, American boys outperformed girls in math on PISA; their science scores were similar.

However, the STEM gender gap hasn’t vanished, reports Erik Robelen.

Take the AP program. In all 10 STEM subjects currently taught and tested, including chemistry, physics, calculus, and computer science, the average scores of females lagged behind males, according to data for the class of 2011.

U.S. girls aren’t as confident as their male classmates, the 2012 PISA report found.

[E]ven when girls perform as well as boys in mathematics, they tend to report less perseverance, less openness to problem-solving, less intrinsic and instrumental motivation to learn mathematics, less self-belief in their ability to learn mathematics and more anxiety about mathematics than boys, on average; they are also more likely than boys to attribute failure in mathematics to themselves rather than to external factors.

Young women are losing ground in computer science, according to Change the Equation: Women earned 18 percent of bachelor’s degrees in computing in 2012, down from 27 percent about a decade earlier. Of those earning a master’s degree in computer science, only 28 percent were female in 2012, compared with 33 percent in 2001.