A Severely Flawed Study
W A S H I N G T O N, Dec. 3 — American schoolchildren lag behind much of the world in math and science because their classes are boring, unfocused and incoherent, researchers said today after examining a recent international survey.
***[How do Swedish-American and Dutch-American schoolchildren fare in US
schools, compared to other American schoolchildren? Do we find this question politically incorrect? Which children complain most about "boring, unfocused and incoherent" classes? The ones who do well, or the ones who lag behind?]
Educators, parents and politicians were shocked earlier this year when an international study showed American children score worse than the rest of the world in the two subjects.
*One might ask: [Do educators, parents and politicians feel shocked when
studies show American girls score worse than boys in the two subjects? Uh-huh, and what about Sweden and the Netherlands... Do boys do better than girls in Sweden and the Netherlands? Do the Swedes and the Dutch feel "shocked" about that? Or do they, instead, provide challenging, focused curricula to all qualified students? Who teaches math and science classes in Sweden and the Netherlands? Men or Women?]
The Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) ranked U.S. 12th-graders, aged 17 and 18, 18th out of 21 countries—far behind Sweden and the Netherlands and ahead only of Lithuania, Cyprus and South Africa.
But William Schmidt, an applied statistician at Michigan State University, and colleagues say pupils are not to blame.
*One might ask: [Does this shock educators, parents, and politicians in
Lithuania, Cyprus and South Africa? Do they have "boring, unfocused and incoherent" classes there too? Does the economic chaos, AIDS, and clan warfare help or hinder schoolchildren in these countries?]
‘Little Rigorous Challenge’
“The U.S. curriculum appears not only to have been unfocused but highly repetitive, lacking coherence, and providing little rigorous challenge during the middle years, particularly when compared to those of other TIMSS countries,” they wrote in the journal Science.
The TIMSS study measured general math and science literacy in third, fourth, seventh, and eighth graders and at high school seniors in the U.S. and more than 40 other countries.
Schmidt took a closer look at the results, released earlier this year. “This tries to put it all together and paint a larger picture,” saidSchmidt, who is also the U.S. national research coordinator for the TIMSS study.
*One might ask: [Would the South African schoolchildren with AIDS do better
with Swedish rigorous challenges? Would the starving schoolchildren in Lithuania? Would the gangbangers in South Los Angeles?]
Too Much to Absorb
One of the key findings after an analysis of more than 1,500 textbook and curricula frameworks from about 50 countries was that Americans tried to teach too much, Schmidt said in a telephone interview.
For example, U.S. math textbooks for 8th graders cover about 35 topics compared to an average of seven in Germany and Japan, he said. U.S. curricula also covered more topics than in those of virtually all other TIMSS countries.
This can be a problem because it gives teachers little time to spend on each topic and textbooks often repeat familiar ones, Schmidt explained. This fails to challenge students and causes them to lose interest.
“This is the mile-wide, inch-deep curriculum we are talking about,” he said.
However, the study also showed U.S. students did not start off at the bottom of the educational ladder, even though they dropped down quickly.
*One might ask: [Do the schoolchildren in the Netherlands, Sweden, Germany,
and Japan have to contend with drive-by shootings (US)? Do they have metal detectors at the school entrance (US)? Have they recently experienced the turmoil of coming out of apartheid (South Africa)? Has their country ever experienced occupation by Soviet troops (Lithuania)?]
Start Out Strong
In their fourth grade, American schoolchildren ranked near the top in science and above average in math, Schmidt said. By the eighth grade, they had tumbled to below average in math and to the middle in science.
*One might ask: [Does this study track the same schoolchildren from the
fourth grade to the eighth? Or might we expect above average fourth graders to become above average eighth graders?]
This fall in the middle years marks the point where the U.S. education system begins to get bogged down, he said, noting that U.S. children were the only ones in the TIMSS study to drop from above to below average during this period.
“This is the critical juncture point,” he said. “That’s when the precipitous decline begins for our students.”
The drop partly occurs because American students get stuck on simpler subjects, like fractions and earth sciences, while children elsewhere begin on algebra, chemistry and physics, he said.
*One might ask: [Do children elsewhere have teachers like those in America
(mostly female), Lithuania (mostly bureaucratic), South Africa (mostly post-apartheid), and Cyprus (mostly fundamentalist)? Or do the children elsewhere have dedicated, integrated, mono-cultural, ethnically stable teachers?]
“Our students are not now being taught on par with students from other countries,” he said, calling for a national program. States now set their own curricula.
If something is not done, Schmidt added, the country could be in trouble. “It’s bound to take a toll at some point,” he said. “I think it is a serous message to society.”
Bottom line: This flawed study compares apples to oranges. No wait! It
compares pineapples to hand grenades. So many variables exist in the
educational systems of the countries studied, that the study provides no
Comparing schoolchildren in war-torn, impoverished, politically volatile countries with schoolchildren in stable, affluent, ethnically homogeneous countries produces results predictable on the basis of many factors besides the course curricula or the ideology of the school system.