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Jerry P. Becker

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Registered: 12/3/04
Lessons From TIMSS - One Viewpoint
Posted: Sep 1, 1998 4:16 PM
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From Hands-On! TERC Newsletter, Spring, 1998, Vol. 21, No. 1, p. 4

Lessons from TIMSS: A Viewpoint from Robert B. Schwartz

Robert B. Schwartz is President of Achieve, Inc. and a member of the
Administration, Planning and Social Policy Faculty at Harvard Graduate
School of Education.

What are we to make of the Third International Mathematics and Science
Study (TIMSS)? Certainly those commentators who believe that American
schools are in crisis and that radical restructuring is required have been
given fresh ammunition. Now that the 12th grade TIMSS results are out, it
is clear that the performance of our schools gets progressively weaker as
students move from elementary to middle to high school. It is hard to see
how anyone can take comfort in the fact that, of the 21 nations that
participated in the 12th grade tests, U.S. students outperform only Cyprus
and South Africa in general math and science knowledge. Perhaps even more
damaging to our self-esteem is the revelation that our most accomplished
students -- those taking advanced mathematics and physics -- are at the
bottom of the pack when compared to their counterparts in other countries.
The fact that the 12th grade pool did not include the Asian nations which
routinely outperform us makes the results even more sobering.

Given our national penchant for averting our eyes from bad news, it was
predictable that some in the education community would attempt to dismiss
or discredit TIMSS, but a recent front page New York Times story (March 2,
1998) went overboard. "Freedom in Math Class May Outweigh Tests" asserted
the headline, and several prominent academicians proceeded to tell us that
these tests don't measure what is important, that the continuing robust
performance of our economy is proof that our educational system is doing
its job, and that any attempt to improve the performance of our students on
these international assessments risks stifling the very qualities of
creativity and innovation that we most prize in our society.

If the public debate about the meaning of these results is conducted only
between the doomsayers and the "Don't worry, be happy" crowd, we will all
be the losers. We will miss an opportunity to benefit from the important
lessons of TIMSS, which are found not in the comparative ranking of
countries but in the extraordinary sub-studies that accompanied the
administration of these tests.

The three TIMSS studies that have been reported to date have profound
implications for American education. The first study, focusing on
textbooks, strongly suggests that, in the absence of clear agreements about
what students are supposed to know and be able to do at each grade or
cluster of grades, our textbooks err on the side of inclusiveness, treating
a huge number of topics superficially rather than a handful of topics in
depth. This is in sharp contrast to the math and science texts in higher
performing nations, which are closely aligned with a more focused and
sharply defined curriculum.

The second study examines videotaped classrooms in Germany, Japan, and the
U.S., and this is enormously instructive in what it reveals about the
structure of the lessons and the focus of pedagogy in the three countries.
Simply put, the American lessons, especially when contrasted with Japanese
classrooms, focus much more on procedures and skills, and much less on
concepts, deductive reasoning, and understanding.

Finally, there are detailed case studies of the same three countries
designed to supplement the survey data obtained from teachers, students,
administrators, and academic experts. The case studies were structured to
elicit information about such topics as national standards, teacher
training, grouping practices, and the non-school factors affecting the
lives of students. The findings are illuminating, especially those
regarding ability grouping (we track much earlier than either Germany or
Japan) and the preparation and induction of teachers.

What lessons should Americans draw from the TIMSS studies? In my view,
these studies confirm the wisdom of the path we have begun -- that of
setting clear, high standards for what we expect all students to know and
be able to do -- but they also underscore the crucial importance of
aligning everything else we do with those standards, from the initial
preparation of teachers and the selection of texts and other curriculum
materials, through the design of new assessments and the ongoing
professional education and support of teachers. This is no small task in a
country where responsibility for making educational policy is dispersed and
fragmented. However, without tighter alignment of the various elements
that typically are grouped together under the heading of systemic reform,
it is hard to see how we can make significant improvements in our
educational performance.

One of the ironies of the hand wringing over the TIMSS results is that it
is in mathematics and science that we have the greatest likelihood of
making real progress, for it is in these fields where we have the broadest
agreement about standards, the strongest state and district
infrastructures, and the most promising curriculum development tied to the
standards. Not incidentally, it is in these fields that we also have the
strongest national leadership and resources for systemic reform, thanks to
the work of NSF, NCTM, the National Academy of Sciences, AAAS, and such
exemplary R&D organizations as TERC.
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA
Fax: (618)453-4244
Phone: (618)453-4241 (office)

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