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.”

Why poor blacks don’t want to be professors

Most science professors are white or Asian males, reported Ed Yong in The Atlantic.

Image result for black latino scientists

Furthermore, women and underrepresented minorities are less likely than white and Asian men to be interested in faculty careers.

Readers responded: So what? It’s patronizing to assume that “women and minorities are wrong about their own interests and priorities,” one wrote.

A postdoc recalled trying to persuade two black female lab techs to go to graduate school.

They told us that we were women in our early thirties who couldn’t afford to buy houses or have children, who spent our nights and weekends working, who didn’t have retirement savings, and who were still struggling to get permanent jobs. Why on earth would they want to be like us?

A black scientist who left a Harvard immunology lab for Big Pharma said the biggest issue is pay. After three years at the lab, he earned $32,000. He started in the pharmaceutical industry at $70,000; after a year, he was earning $90,000 with shorter hours.

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.”

Younger students do better in science

Fourth and eighth graders are doing better on the National Assessment of Educational Progress science exam, but two-thirds of students aren’t proficient. Twelfth-grade scores remained the same.

A national sample of students were tested in physical science, life science and earth and space sciences.

2011 question for 8th graders

2011 question for 8th graders

Science instruction has improved for younger students, said John Holdren, President Obama’s science adviser. “We will see it reflected in the years ahead in the 12th-grade scores as well,” he said.

Fourth-grade girls closed the gender gap, while older girls improved more than their male classmates.

Black and Latino students also narrowed the achievement gap in science.

Sample science questions for fourth graderseighth graders and 12th graders start on page 17.

Pokémon Go: Is it more than a fad? 

Pokémon Go, which uses GPS  to send players in search of digital characters, has become wildly and popular.  My niece, who’s 17, showed me a photo she’d taken on her phone of a character she’d “found” in the park.

Cyrus Phan, 29, right, and Anthony Puah, are gamers that run a driving service Pika Speed, are photographed driving customer as he plays the game in down-town San Jose, Calif., on Wednesday, July 20, 2016. Pika Speed, which offers to drive Pokemon Go players around as they play the game Josie Lepe/Bay Area News Group)

Cyrus Phan, 29, right, and Anthony Puah, started Pika Speed to drive Pokemon Go players around San Jose. Photo: Josie Lepe/Bay Area News Group

It’s encouraging gamers to get outside and do a lot of walking, though a San Jose start-up will chauffeur players and the especially lazy can entrepreneurs will hire someone to play for them. (What’s the point? I don’t know.)

Educators dream of using the game to teach local history, mapping, math and literacy, writes Leo Doran in Education Week. “Commentators are weighing in on potential educational applications.”

The game is a “way to enchant the environment,” said James Gee, an Arizona State professor who’s studied gaming. “Every human would love to think that there are fairies running around and the environment is full of magic — that’s been a theme of literature and many cultures actually believe it. Now Pokémon comes out and actually does those things.”

Pikachu, the most popular character, has the power of static: It releases a burst of energy.

Pikachu, the most popular character, has the power of static: It releases a burst of energy.

Greg Toppo, author of The Game Believes in You, also looks at Pokémon  as an educational tool. “Teachers have been blogging about how they might use the game once school begins,” he writes in USA Today.

Matthew Farber, a Denville, N.J., middle school social studies teacher and author of Gamify Your Classroom, predicts teachers will use the game to get students to “explore and research important historic Poké Stops near their home or school,” writes Toppo.

Pokémon creatures lurk in “art museums and churches and historical places and parks,” game designer Kellian Adams-Pletcher told Toppo. Museums are “thrilled” by the prospect of drawing in new visitors.

Game designer Jane McGonigal noted that scientists are already taking advantage of the game’s millions of users, urging them to take photos of species of bugs, fish and animals that don’t look familiar.

“It’s a slippery slope from video games to citizen science,” she said.

When collecting Pokémon cards was a fad in the late 1990s, Gee called the game a brilliant literacy curriculum, writes Toppo. A generation learned to read “specialized, technical, cross-referenced text” and “analyze and classify more than 700 different types of creatures,” the professor pointed out.

Toppo writes: “Gee predicted, a bit cynically, that if we were to turn Pokémon into a school subject, ‘certain children, many of them poor, would all of a sudden have trouble learning Pokémon’.”

Doing science: Beyond dinosaurs

New science standards set expectations for what should be taught in each grade and stress experimentation,  reports John Tulenko on PBS NewsHour.

Next Generation Science Standards are being adopted without the controversy of Common Core standards. The controversy may come.

NGSS call for teachers to teach physics, biology, chemistry and other subjects “in a multi-disciplinary fashion to show their interconnectedness” rather than as individual courses, reports Pat Maio for EdSource.

“Instead of memorizing vocabulary on how waves move, students might use a fish tank to observe the size of waves as an external force moves the water,” Maio writes. “Students would be asked to relate the concept to other areas of science, like radio or air waves, or how light moves through the universe.”

Is this really new?

Here’s more on preparing teachers to teach the new science standards.

Kinders read more, play less

Kindergarteners are reading more and playing less, concludes a University of Virginia study.

In 1998, before No Child Left Behind put the focus on achievement gaps, 31 percent of kindergarten teachers expected their students to learn to read that year. By 2010, 80 percent believed kindergarteners should be learning to read.

Seventy-three percent of kindergarteners took a standardized test in 2010. That’s more than first graders took in 1998. Kindergarten teachers weren’t asked about testing. writes NPR’s Anya Kamenetz.

Fewer teachers offer music and art every day and there were “notable drops in teachers saying they covered science topics like dinosaurs and outer space, which kids this age find really engaging,” says Daphna Bassok, the study’s lead author.

There were large, double-digit decreases in the percentages of teachers who said their classrooms had areas for dress-up, a water or sand table, an art area or a science/nature area. And teachers who offered at least an hour a day of student-driven activities dropped from 54 to 40 percent. At the same time, whole-class, teacher-led instruction rose along with the use of textbooks and worksheets.

However, children are more likely to have recess and just as likely to have a P.E. class.

With the sharp rise in preschool enrollment, teachers may expect more from students, writes Kamenetz. That leads to a sort of academic arms race: 1 in 5 kindergarteners is already six years old as more parents may wait a year to enroll a child who’s not ready for reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmetic and testing.

Teachers need to know wrong answers

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble,” said Mark Twain. “It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Teachers need to know the wrong answers to teach the right answers, says Philip Sadler, a professor of astronomy who runs Harvard’s Science Education department. It’s hard for teachers to explain concepts unless they  “understand the flaws in students’ reasoning,” writes Anya Kamenetz on NPR.

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It takes a lot of “mental effort to change the ideas that you come up with yourself,” says Sadler. “It’s a big investment to say, ‘I’m going to abandon this thing that I came up with that makes sense to me and believe what the book or the teacher says instead.’ ”

Sadler gave a multiple-choice science test to middle-school students, including a “distractor” — a common misconception — for each question, he writes in American Educator.

For example:

2. Eric is watching a burning candle very carefully. After all of the candle has burned, he wonders what happened to the wax. He has a number of ideas; which one do you agree with most?

a. The candle wax has turned into invisible gases.

d. All of the wax has melted and dripped to the bottom of the candle holder.

Fifty-nine percent of students chose “d.” Only 17 percent chose the right answer, “a.”

When Sadler tested the students’ teachers, they knew 85 percent of the right answers, but only 41 percent of the “right” wrong answers, writes Kamenetz. Students whose teachers were more aware of common errors “learned significantly more science, based on a retest at the end of the year.”

How ‘Friends’ led to the fall of civilization

Friends and its “tragic hero, Ross Geller,” triggered the downfall of Western Civilization, writes David Hopkins on Medium.

Ross Geller was a professor of paleontology on Friends.

Ross Geller was a nerdy paleontology professor on Friends.

“Ross was the intellectual and the romantic,” he writes. His so-called “friends” groaned with boredom whenever he talked “his interests, his studies, his ideas.” Eventually, Ross went crazy.

The show ended in 2004, the year that “reality television became a dominant force in pop culture,” writes Hopkins. Paris Hilton released an autobiography.  Joey Tribbiani, Friends‘ dimwit actor, got a spin-off TV show.

Hopkins was a teacher that year. As coach of the chess club, he saw his students picked on and bullied, he writes. “My students were smart, huge nerds, and they were in hostile, unfriendly territory.”

Astronaut Mark Watney was smart and studly in The Martian.

Martian astronaut Mark Watney was a smart, studly scientist.

I just saw The Martian on DVD. Matt Damon plays the hero astronaut, who uses his knowledge, strength and courage to survive. “I’m gonna have to science the shit out of this,” he pledges.

The Martian glorifies a specifically male nerdery, one whose values sync up with those of traditional masculinity: physical endurance, survival in a hostile landscape, honor, adulation,” writes Katy Waldman in Slate. She complains because the brave and brainy female astronauts are also beautiful.

Is that so bad?