college of education | spring 2001
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International Education |
Article 4 |
No other comparative education project in the College of Education has had the impact of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).
TIMSS, with leadership from Professor William Schmidt and others, is the most ambitious project of its kind (more than 50 countries) and has yielded powerful insights into the nature of teaching mathematics and science both in this country and throughout the world.
Overall, the news for U.S. education has not been good. Although American fourth-graders scored near the top in scienceoutperformed only by South Korea and Japanand slightly above the international average in mathematics, TIMSS chronicles a precipitous decline in achievement through middle and high school.
In the eighth grade, U.S. students scores dipped below the international average in science and mathematics. It was even worse by the end of high school. TIMSS found that American seniors could outperform only two nationsCyprus and South Africain mathematics, and in physics they finished at the bottom, outperformed by every other country in that portion of the study.
In December, researchers released the latest data from the long-range study (called r for repeat). Some 800,000 students in 23 countries who were in the fourth grade in 1995 when the initial TIMSS survey was done were tested at the eighth grade.
Some educators had hoped that the strong American performance in fourth grade would foreshadow improvement as the students moved through the middle school years. However, the data showed that American students had fallen to the international average in science, and below it in mathematics.
So what did we expect? We didnt change anything and here we are four years later affirming what we knewthat kids tend to decline over the middle grades, Schmidt said. Since that initial study there have been vigorous debates about the middle school curriculum in the U.S., but no resulting widespread substantive change. Now the 1999 results are available and we find evidence of no change, no gain. Its about curriculum. We dont teach challenging science or mathematics to our kids.
Since TIMSS began releasing data, Schmidt has ardently advocated reforming the way U.S. mathematics and science is taught. He has characterized the U.S. curriculum as a mile wide and an inch deep.
The latest results, Schmidt said, should be yet another clear indication that American students dont start out behind. The poor performance is the result of an unchallenging and repetitive curriculum, especially in middle school.
Schmidt points out, for example, that the curricula of the highest performing nations introduce subjects like geometry, physics and chemistry before high school. By the time those nations students enter high school, they are ready to take on more challenging mathematics and science.
When TIMSS researchers examined U.S. middle school mathematics and science curricula, however, they found an emphasis on elementary topics such as arithmetic, descriptive biology and earth science.
Only 5 percent of U.S. students are in classes whose teachers report that physics or chemistry are the most emphasized topics in their eighth grade science class, Schmidt said. The average of the other 22 countries in the study is almost five times larger.
The system has to change to include a curriculum that is more cohesive, covering fewer subjects but in greater depth. Students must be challenged to achieve at high levels by teachers who have mastered the subject matter and who have continual opportunities for professional development.
These are the lessons, Schmidt said, that policy makers should learn from TIMSS. He remains optimistic about the prospects for change. He considers organizations like achieve, a group made up of governors and business leaders who are working to bring about substantive change at the national level in mathematics for the middle grades, a hopeful sign.
Comparative education research projects like TIMSS are important not for the horse race, he said. In other words, what nation finished first or who finished last. The value of TIMSS is that it allows us to see what is working when in it comes to math and science education and what is not.
up to us as a nation to make the changes that will make our system of
teaching math and science more effective for all students.