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If At First You Don't Succeed...


Dear Deborah,

I have read the reports of the international assessments over the years and think it would be foolhardy to dismiss them out of hand. The professionals who create them and administer them have no axe to grind; they don’t get bonuses if the scores go up or down. They are scrupulous about reporting the participation rates, the exclusion rates, the age of the students who took the tests, and all other relevant factors. Unlike district superintendents and state superintendents, they have no reason to boast about rising scores or seek better results.

The analysis of the international tests that I have found especially interesting is one published in 2005 by the American Institutes of Research called Reassessing U.S. International Mathematics Performance. This study examined the dozen nations that participated in both TIMSS and PISA. It exploded a common myth that American students do well in fourth grade, are about average compared to other nations by eighth grade, and perform dismally in senior year in high school. No, says the study, this is not an accurate characterization. In fact, when looking only at the nations that have consistently taken part in international testing, students in the U.S. are mediocre at every grade level, not ranking better than eighth or ninth out of the dozen nations.

One of the characteristics of most of the high-scoring nations was a national curriculum in mathematics. That way, teachers did not have to engage in guesswork about what students needed to learn.

While on the subject of math, there is an interesting insight about the New York State Regents that I want to share with you. A former mathematics teacher, Steve Koss, regularly writes for the New York City parent blog, and he recently pointed out that the passing score on the Regents exam in mathematics is a farce. A student need answer only 31 percent of the questions on the exam correctly in order to get a passing grade of 65. Or, as he puts it, “a paltry 31 percent is now the new 65 percent.” The public presumes (I certainly did), that a grade of 65 on an exam means that a student answered 65 percent of the questions correctly. This is not, according to Koss, the case. So much for high standards. Education Week, by the way, ranked New York as the #1 state in the nation recently in education. I wonder if those who created the rankings looked at the examination system.




Two points: First, I wonder how the two tiers of U.S. schools would match up against each other. I would guess that the gap between wealthy suburban and selective enrollment schools, on the one hand, and poorer inner-city schools on the other, would be much greater than that between U.S. schools (on average) and their international competitors on the other.

Secrondly, a national curriculum in math doesn't eliminate the "guesswork: about what students need to learn. That guesswork is an essential part of good teaching. National or international experts, who have no knowledge of the child, cannot possibly, on their own, determine what every child "needs to know."

Don't forget, these same folks, who have "no axe to grind" are the one who created a science and math sequence, ie. biology, chemistry and physics, based on alphabetical order, rather than teaching physics first. The same with algebra, geometry, trig.

I would guess, after looking at our own curriculum wars, that everyone has an "axe." Isn't that why we are trying to bridge differences?

National standards would establish what needs to be taught in each subject, at each grade level. This promulgated sequencing of academic expectations would minimize/eliminate redundancies as well as define a pragmatic/transparent order for all to examine. It could be developed by representatives from the 50 state DOEs on a committee coming to consensus as to what would be necessary in each subject at each grade level.

Kids from Juneau, Alaska to Jupiter, Florida would have access to one "common" body of knowledge. 171 years ago Horace Mann advocated for a similar "common" body of knowledge for students in the state of Massachusetts. In our global economy it's time the US went from fifty different state curricula (some comprehensive, others rather anemic) to one common national academic plan to ensure every child throughout the country has access to a challenging body of knowledge citizens would want for all our students.


A national curriculum would definitely reduce the guesswork about "what" children need to learn, but should also support individualizing the "how" to teach to each child.

Math in particular needs to be highly organized, (eg. children need to learn adding before multiplication.) Is there really a question in your mind whether all children should learn to add, subtract, multiply and divide?

Erin Johnson

[National or international experts, who have no knowledge of the child, cannot possibly, on their own, determine what every child "needs to know."]

This is really puzzling. As Erin points out correctly, there is a body of foundational knowledge and skills which should benefit every child.

By which criteria do you determine the "needs" of which you speak. I hope you are not suggesting a class-based system as was urged by the progressives of yore.


I did some analysis that, while not exactly answering your question, may shed a little light. This pertains to the data from the PISA 2003 problem solving study but I suspect that the math and science results would be similar.

Overall, the USA placed 29th out of the 40 nations that participated in the study. When looking only at the students at the 95th percentile from each nation (everyone's best), the USA moved up to 24th place.

So, it is certainly true that the "bottom 94%" of our students drag down our relative standing. However, the effect is probably less than many would have imagined. I think we must also be concerned about how well our best students are performing in these international assessments


It puzzles me that the DoE spends millions on "brain-based" programs. (Basic premise: if you identify a child's specific learning breakdown in terms of brain functions, you can then address it with an appropriate strategy, which the student learns to identify and apply.) Some of the general principles have merit (e.g., recognizing and addressing students' educational needs), but much of the stuff slips, slides, perishes (sorry, T.S. Eliot) under scrutiny.

In the meantime, many schools and subjects lack a specific curriculum. In a perverse way, strategies have actually come to replace subject matter. The tests reflect this. No wonder there's so much test prep--we are dancing around in zeros.

Whether or not we adopt a national curriculum, a curriculum there should be, at least at the city level. This would boost learning, endow schools with a sense of purpose, give students something to think about, reduce the need for test prep, protect schools from fads, and maybe even help retain teachers.

Instead, we are paying crooks to sell their wares, which we then buy.

I think all schools should have COWS (curriculum on wheels). That way Barbara Bush's son could earn a wage and all schools could be on the same "page".

All kidding aside, I find it difficult to have testing separate from the curriculum. They tie together no matter what or how you do it.

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