« Teachers and the Choices They've Always Had | Main | What We Mean By Being 'Well-Educated' »

What We Can Learn from the International Assessments

| 11 Comments

Dear Deborah,

I think a few words are in order about the AIR study of TIMSS and PISA. The 11 countries that have taken all of these tests are, in addition to the U.S.: Australia, Belgium, Hong Kong, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Latvia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Russia. It is true that Hong Kong is a city-state. It is true that none of these is as populous as the United States. It is also true that U.S. student performance was consistently mediocre in comparison to the others.

Maybe that matters, maybe not. The report, referenced in my previous blog, is well worth reading. The authors of the report point out that one of the interesting differences among the dozen participating nations is that all except Australia, Belgium, and the United States have a national mathematics curriculum, "although Belgium has a national test that acts as de facto standards. A national mathematics curriculum does not guarantee high performance (Italy is a good example), but conversely, in the absence of a national mathematics curriculum, the U.S. has 50 separate state curriculums." I read only a few weeks ago that Australia plans to develop a national curriculum.

The authors point out that state curricula differ considerably in their topic coverage, and that textbook publishers try to cover all their bases (i.e., all the diverse state curricula) by covering about twice as many topics as they really should. Consequently, "With so many topics, U.S. teachers, in trying to follow the textbooks, rarely get much beyond teaching mathematical procedures and do not develop in their students a deep conceptual understanding of mathematics topics and their applications." Thus, we have the familiar phrase that was coined (I believe) by William Schmidt, referring to the American curriculum in mathematics, that it is "a mile wide and an inch deep." Bill Schmidt was speaking about the superficiality of coverage that is encouraged by the textbooks where everything must be thrown in to satisfy the differing requirements of so many states.

My guess is that we mandate so much in this country because we don't have a national curriculum. In lieu of a national curriculum, we have federal and state and local authorities trying to micromanage the teachers' days. Many of those authorities, as we know, are not educators; many of them are legislators trying to steer people to their pet reform.

My preference would be to set national guidelines for the topics to be covered in each grade, and to leave teachers free to teach it without constant interference by heavy-handed bureaucrats, politicians, and management consultants. I would also like to see national testing (without stakes), based on the national curriculum.

But I don't want to push your blood pressure too high, so let's turn to the last subject you raised: early-childhood education. I agree with you about the importance of play. I would hate to see kids being raised without the chance to let their imagination run free. I would hate to see preschools and kindergartens without blocks or clay or water paints.

And one of our readers, instructivist, who is a middle-school teacher in Chicago, sent a very interesting comment a couple of weeks ago about what is happening to Chicago's high schools. He tells us that Gates money is being used to "transform" all of the high schools into inquiry centers, or words to that effect. I think that is a euphemism for making everything constructivist and removing what I think of as academic content and substance from the classroom. I don't know if that pleases you, but it sure doesn't please me. Nor does it please me that the Gates Foundation, with its obscene amount of money, has the power to set education policy for one of the nation's largest school districts. I wonder if the day will ever come when the public will demand an end to this power grab by rich foundations which exercise de facto control of their schools.

Diane

11 Comments

I think it's important to keep in mind that the power of a national curriculum may not be as large as you think; the vast majority of countries that have a national curriculum have introduced it relatively recently (see p. 166 of the TIMSS report), the arguments over international patterns of achievement extend far before the introduction of such curriculum (so it's hard to attribute differential performance to the presence/absence of such a curriculum), the presence of a national curriculum may not mean either that it is academically focused or even all that controlling (e.g., Spain's hybrid system), and the TIMSS/PISA compilation only included countries that participated in both, leaving out a bunch of countries (including Spain).

Personally, I think a hybrid system such as Spain's may be appropriate... but depending on the stakes, it may be the same as the narrowing of curriculum we see with NCLB.

I think it's important to keep in mind that the power of a national curriculum may not be as large as you think; the vast majority of countries that have a national curriculum have introduced it relatively recently (see p. 166 of the TIMSS report), the arguments over international patterns of achievement extend far before the introduction of such curriculum (so it's hard to attribute differential performance to the presence/absence of such a curriculum), the presence of a national curriculum may not mean either that it is academically focused or even all that controlling (e.g., Spain's hybrid system), and the TIMSS/PISA compilation only included countries that participated in both, leaving out a bunch of countries (including Spain).

Personally, I think a hybrid system such as Spain's may be appropriate... but depending on the stakes, it may result in the same narrowing of curriculum we see with NCLB.

The unintended positive consequences of a national math curriculum include but are not limited to:
• The reduced cost of curricular materials
• The ability to put the entire curriculum, teacher’s guides, and workbooks online and accessible for free.
• The transparency of the system means any parent, student or educator knows what is expected and when.
• Collaboration is made far simpler for all constituents.
• Given 40% of lower and lower middle class Americans move every 2-4 years the portability of what is expected is an education tax break of extreme importance.
• When remediation is needed it can be enabled with help from technology (i.e. APREMAT in Honduras the math on the radio program employed by over 2 million students)

Those are the unintended un counted consequences.

Diane,
I also believe national standards accompanied by national testing would be our best course of action. This must be accompanied by a common definition for "proficient." Otherwise, states will continue to do exactly what they're doing now with their NCLB tests - manipulating them to have them say what the public wants to hear - most of the kids in our state are doing fine.

John,
Missing (for me, anyway) from your list of unintended positive consequences of a national mathematics curriculum is: all students would finally have ACCESS TO a common body of information which, as Horace Mann hoped for in 1839, would be the "great equalizer." No child, as a result of residency, would be left behind. Isn't this "great equalizer" of common access what our democracy is all about? If you allow all children an equal opportunity to get a comprehensive/quality education you're giving them a chance in life. Just make sure that poor and minority youngsters have appropriate social services attached to their access.

Paul Hoss

Congratulations, Diane! I am persuaded by these arguments for a national math curriculum.

However, what about other subject areas? When we get into the idea of a national history curriculum, or a national literature curriculum, it seems that no consensus over what should be taught is possible—and that's a good thing, I contend. But, if a national math curriculum works, I foresee our nation's esteemed educational experts (politicians, lobbyists, etc.) trying to stretch the success beyond its bounds. The great thing about radically localized school control—in theory—is that individual teachers have the freedom to teach what they find personally exciting. The passion of the teacher is transmitted to the student along with new information, and from year to year—again, in theory—a student begins to see the broader picture, to construct his/her own view of the world situation through his/her own lenses.

This, of course, assumes that teachers do not promote their subjective understandings of culture and history as categorical truth. Rather, they must be explicit with their students about the great difference between mathematics and history. Mathematics starts with a universally accepted set of fundamental axioms from which other axioms are derived (and these can be proven as correct or incorrect). History starts with a set of objective conditions that no one but an omniscient being might fully grasp (let alone articulate), and it is up to interested parties to sort through empirical evidence in an attempt to arrive at some sort of understanding. In short, the aim of the former is truth, the latter, understanding.

I go off on this tangent to make the following point: a subject whose modus operandi is deductive reasoning (like math) is fair game for national standards, international tests, etc.; a subject operating on inductive reasoning (like history) is not. Maybe a national math curriculum is a good idea. Let’s hold it to that.

Keeping with my pattern of agreeing with the last person who posted during this debate, I agree with JP. In my case, though, its not the inductive nature of history, but the amount of hours needed to cover the subject.

A national curriculum in any particular subject does not have to preclude the individual teacher's interests. In fact, bringing in the passion of teachers is essential to quality learning.

What if we had a national curriculum in history that structured the material (say cover Greece in 4th grade, Rome in 5th grade, etc...) but allowed teachers to bring their interests and experience into interpreting the material. This would allow children to learn about history, distant cultures and the foundations of our own traditions while allowing teachers to infuse our children with their enthusiasm for learning.

Best of both worlds.

Erin Johnson

JP,

You stated, "The great thing about radically localized school control—in theory—is that individual teachers have the freedom to teach what they find personally exciting."

I would contend, that was the problem with local school control prior to education reform and the standards movement. There were no defined school/district/state/federal curricula for teachers to follow. They taught, pretty much, whatever they wanted to the exclusion of a more comprehensive curriculum. I can't tell you how many elementary teachers I worked with who taught language arts six hours a day, 180 days a year because that was what they were most comfortable doing. They intentionally avoided math, science and history because they were NOT as comfortable with those disciplines. They didn't do well with them when they were in school so they avoided teaching them when they became teachers. Thank goodness for ed reform. As an aside, these were the same people, who every time we got a raise, came running to my room asking how much they were going to be making next year because they couldn't figure out what a five percent raise was on top of their fifty two thousand dollar existing salary. God's honest truth.

What kind of well-rounded academic year could those kids be in store for with that teacher’s mission statement?

Paul,

I am definitely not advocating that teachers only teach their favorite subjects! You're right--without excellent content area preparation, elementary teachers might fall into the language arts trap you describe. I guess I imagine a radically different system where instead of fixating on standards, standards, standards, that energy is put towards ensuring that teachers are well-rounded and passionate pupils before they're made teachers. We can start in schools of education. 18-year-olds are thrown into something akin to a vocational training program and never given the opportunity get beyond the perfunctory treatment of the basic academic subjects that they were subjected to in high school. Our teachers are required to learn about the history of education, but not capital-H History. How can one be expected to be passionate about something one was never exposed to?

JP,

Point well taken. Fortunately, as part of education reform, many states have ratcheted up their qualifications for becoming a teacher. That, to me, has been a good thing.

Foundations and philanthropists are willing to spend oodles of money on questionable projects. There is one idea nobody seems to have hit upon -- an idea that could actually do some good.

With the help of foundations, cash-strapped inner city schools could try to provide extra help to struggling students in the form of intensive academic support (IAS) to small groups (not more than ten) during regular school hours in failing schools. This support can be offered for math and science, for example, two areas in which the disadvantaged fail spectacularly. It would require hiring a few new teachers with expertise in the respective subject areas per struggling school. These intensive academic support sessions could be held during the prep times of regular classroom teachers.

Such an approach would do wonders to the math and science education of the disadvantaged. Because of large classrooms and frequent disruptions, regular classroom teachers cannot offer the individualized and sustained attention the disadvantaged need to succeed in math and science. Many are so far behind and have such poor work and study habits that only intensive and sustained academic involvement will bring them up to speed.

Comments are now closed for this post.

Advertisement

Most Viewed on Education Week

Categories

Archives

Recent Comments