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.”

U.S. teachers feel undervalued

From National Center on Education and the Economy:

How Society Values Teachers

A first-rate teacher for every classroom

To “get a first-rate teacher in front of every student,” schools need to retain teachers long enough to build expertise, writes Marc Tucker on his Top Performers blog.

Attrition is higher in the U.S. than in top-performing countries, writes Tucker. Teachers who quit “typically complain that they were not well prepared for the realities of teaching and had little help from anyone else once they started teaching.”

“Most teachers have a steep learning curve during their first three years in teaching, but that curve typically flattens out after three years,” Tucker writes. Novices are motivated to learn how to do the job to survive — but, after that, “all teachers have pretty much the same job, at the same pay, with the same status, for the rest of their working lives.”

A new, very large international study by Stanford’s Linda Darling-Hammond looks at how schools support high-quality teachers and teaching in Australia, Singapore, Shanghai and Canada, he writes.

These high-performing countries work hard to hire the best possible teachers, then focus on building their expertise and providing “a meaningful career progression that reinforces and rewards” expertise, Tucker writes.

In these countries, novice teachers are less likely to quit and teacher effectiveness doesn’t plateau after three years. They keep getting better.

Are you smarter than a Singaporean?

When is Cheryl’s birthday? This logic question went viral after Hello Singapore TV host Kenneth Kong posted it to his Facebook page, saying it was aimed at fifth graders. Actually, it’s a Math Olympiad question for secondary students.


Singapore’s math students are the best in the world in problem solving on PISA, writes Terrance F. Ross in The Atlantic. But they don’t solve this sort of problem in fifth grade.

I figured out the answer, which I thought was pretty good for an English major who’s 45 years out of high school. The answer is here.

U.S. kids do more homework, learn less

 U.S. teens spend more time on homework, but learn less than students in other developed countries, according to the Programme of International Scholastic Asessment (PISA).

American 15-year-olds do about six hours of homework per week. In most countries, students who spend more time doing homework also score higher on the math exam, reports Libby Nelson on Vox. But, in the U.S., “doing more homework correlated with slightly lower scores.”

I wonder if math homework is different in the U.S. than math homework in Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore, where math scores are high and doing more homework seems to pay off.

Are U.S. students more likely to exaggerate how much they actually study?

And why is the homework payoff so much lower in high-scoring Shanghai?

Geniuses teach themselves

“Gifted” education doesn’t do much for geniuses, writes Jay Mathews in the Washington Post. “An occasional pullout class is likely to be less interesting to them than their own research in their parents’ bookcases, kitchens, the local library and the Internet,” he writes.

Our schools have more than they can handle in helping other students become fully functioning adults. There may be something to the view that socially awkward geniuses need a safe place to be weird, but the better approach is to focus on stopping bullying of all kids. Public schools are mostly successful at finding people who know how to teach English, math, history and science, but we don’t know how to encourage creativity very well and might find it better to let the gifted do their own exploring.

He offers a counter-example: In her 1977 book, Turning On Bright Minds: A Parent Looks at Gifted Education in Texas, Julie Ray profiled a Houston sixth-grader she called Tim.

He was in an ambitious public school’s gifted-education program that would later be called Vanguard. Tim was reading dozens of books and had several science projects underway. He was surveying classmates in order to rate all the school’s teachers. He loved the school’s small group discussions, where he was free to share his wildest ideas.

“Tim” appears in Brad Stone’s new book, The Everything Store. His real name is  Jeff Bezos. His store is Amazon.

Checker Finn is researching how other countries educate high-ability students. No country does it very well. Singapore is the best — but only for the top 1 percent.

“Nobody is compensating well for the absence of pushy, prosperous, influential parents,” though Hungary is trying hard to reach disadvantaged students.

Beehives inspire Learning Towers

Singapore’s new Communal Learning Towers were inspired by beehives, reports My Modern Metropolis.

The new Learning Hub for Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University was designed to encourage students and teachers to interact easily.

Ivy League shuns teaching — except for TFA

Nearly one in five Harvard students apply to Teach for America, but very few want to train as teachers, says Harvard Graduate School of Education Dean James Ryan. “He hopes that eventually between five and 10 percent of the class will go through the undergraduate teaching program,” reports Eleanor Barkhorn in The Atlantic. 

There’s “a long-standing institutional snobbery” about teaching writes Barkhorn.

As Walter Isaacson put it at this year’s Washington Ideas Forum, there’s a perception that “it’s beneath the dignity of an Ivy League school to train teachers.”

Teach for America has helped change that perception. “I think TFA has done a lot in terms of elevating the profession of teaching and elevating the importance of public education and education generally,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, in conversation with Isaacson, CEO of The Aspen Institute, and Ryan.

Cornell has dropped undergraduate teacher-training, said Weingarten, a Cornell alum. “We say education is really important, but here you have the land grant institution of New York State that has eliminated teacher-training programs. If we don’t actually have real preparation like Finland and Singapore do that really teaches teachers how to teach … then what are we doing?”

In Finland and Singapore, only the best students can qualify as teachers. Finland combines master’s degree studies with supervised practice. In Singapore, master teachers mentor novices for several years.

U.S. is above average in math, science

U.S. eighth graders in 36 states outperform the international average, reports the National Center for Education Statistics. In science, U.S. students in 46 states outscored the global competition.

However, even in the top-performing states — Massachusetts, Vermont and Minnesota — fewer U.S. students scored at the highest levels than students in several East Asian countries, notes the New York Times.

“It’s better news than we’re used to,” said David Driscoll, the chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for the national exams commonly known as the Nation’s Report Card. “But it’s still not anything to allow us to rest on our laurels.”

While 19 percent of eighth graders in Massachusetts, the highest-performing state, scored at the advanced level in math, close to 50 percent were advanced in South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan.

Twenty-four percent of Massachusetts students achieved the advanced level, compared with 40 percent in Singapore.

France, Germany, Denmark, China and India did not participate, notes Paul Peterson, a Harvard education professor.

This global math achievement graph, via Education Week, shows the U.S. tied with Britain. South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan — you sense a pattern perhaps — do the best.

In science, the top seven performers globally are: Singapore, Massachusetts, Taiwan, Vermont, South Korea, Japan and New Hampshire.

Britain looks East for better schools

Longer school days and shorter holidays would help British students catch up with  Asian students, Education Secretary Michael Gove said at an education conference in London.

“If you look at the length of the school day in England, the length of the summer holiday, and we compare it to the extra tuition and support that children are receiving elsewhere, then we are fighting or actually running in this global race in a way that ensures that we start with a significant handicap.”

Gove should “know how boring and soul-sapping rote-learning can be,” responds Clarissa Tam, a graduate of Singapore schools.

Does he know how the emphasis on science, maths and IT can turn students into little robots, affecting particularly those of a more creative bent?

. . . The intense pressure to excel means students often study not for the joy of succeeding, but from the fear of failing. In Singapore they have a term for it — kiasu, which means ‘scared to lose’.

And yet, the drive for excellence can be empowering, Tam writes. When she faces challenges, she recalls that “my parents, my teachers, even my schoolmates have always expected more of me than I have of myself.”

I have even, somewhat to my own disgust, come to appreciate the emphasis on the rigour of science and maths, and even on the importance of rote-learning and putting certain things to memory. At the risk of sounding like a headmistress — discipline and structure must be inculcated, whereas creativity is often innate or inborn. Here’s the thing: once you have the structure, you can pile all the artistic sensitivity you like on top, free as you please. But without any proper foundation, all creativity is for naught.

Gove’s “Look East” policy comes at a time when many Asian countries are looking West in search of “inventiveness, originality and lateral thinking,” she writes. Singapore has created arts and drama schools and is “introducing more project- and team-based work as well as teaching formats such as show-and-tell.”