What We Can Learn from the International Assessments
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.