Q&A #1678

Improving Math Education with TIMSS

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From: Yevgeniy Traube <ytraube@banet.net>
To: Teacher2Teacher Service
Date: Jun 20, 1999 at 23:06:55
Subject: Improving Math Education with TIMSS

I hope that this letter will reach chief education administrators, school 
curriculum makers and the authors of the paper "Improving Mathematics 
Education Using Results from NAEP and TIMSS". This letter may also be of 
interest to the people who are involved in the nature and methods of 
teaching mathematics in U.S. schools.

     I have read Linda Dager Wilson's and Rolf K. Blank's paper  "Improving 
Mathematics Education Using Results from NAEP and TIMSS". It is very 
interesting. In the paper authors discussed TIMSS result and gave a few 
advises on how to improve mathematics education in the U.S. In the TIMSS 
mathematics results, U.S. students ranked high in 4th grade, below average 
in 8th grade, and almost last in grade 12th. Why do their results go down? 
Authors gave a few answers. I don't agree with a few conclusions that they 

            1. Let me give one long cite from the paper: " In Figure 25, we 
compare data on
implemented curriculum in mathematics at grade 8 in Japan and the U.S. We 
show the percentage of teachers that covered each topic and the average 
percentage of time per year spent on the topic. As the data show, Japanese 
eighth grade teachers spend most of their time teaching a few topics: 
geometry, congruence and similarity, functions, relations and patterns, and 
equations and formulas. In fact, those four areas of the curriculum account 
for approximately 67 percent of the time they spend teaching. In contrast, 
teachers in the U.S. spread time very thin among a wide range of topics. 
The majority teaches16-18 different topics, with only one topic accounting 
for more than eight percent of their teaching time. That topic is 
fractions, which only about a quarter of Japanese teachers teach, 
accounting for only two percent of their time. These results point to why 
some have accused the U.S. mathematics curriculum, especially in the middle 
grades, if being " a mile wide and an inch deep". With so many different 
topics taught during that year, it is unrealistic to expect that any given 
topic will be treated at more then a superficial level". 
         In my opinion authors don't show that they understand difference 
between distribution of materials in math curriculums in Japanese schools 
(and the rest of countries of the whole world) and in the U.S? Can we 
believe that only about a quarter of Japanese teachers teach fractions, 
accounting for only two percent of their time with this topic? Can we 
believe that Japanese teachers teach deeply only four topics instead of 
16-18 like the U.S. teachers? Of course, Japanese teachers, just like other 
teachers in most other countries of the world, teach the same numbers of 
topics during all three years in middle schools. They have the same budget 
of time. They only don't study all these topics the first time in 6th 
grade, then they don't repeat the same topics the second time in 7th grade, 
and don't do it by the same way in 8th grade.
          Instead of it, they distribute new topics among all grades of 
middle schools, unlike the U.S. teachers. Really, divide 16-18 different 
topics by 3 years (6th, 7th, and 8th grades) and you will have to study 
only 5-6 new topic for every year. In this case you will have enough time 
to teach well any students. You won't need to study topics that you studied 
in 6th grade in 7th and 8th grades and so on. To remind the students the 
previously learned material, you will be only required to include this 
material into some of the problems in other topics from time to time. The 
Figure 25 just shows this situation. Japanese teachers spend 67 percent of 
the time they spend teaching only for four new areas (which they did not 
study in 6th and 7th grades) and they spend the rest time to review what 
they studied in previous years. The whole world does it this way.  
         I think that may be it is only the U.S. curriculums demand to 
study the same topics in 6th, 7th, and 8th grades of middle schools. Ergo, 
I think this is the primary reason why the TIMSS results look as they do. 
The 4th grade students were taught the same way as they are taught in the 
rest whole world, but students of middle schools were taught in specific 
and the worst way.
         So, I think that the chief education administrators and policy 
makers have to change this situation. We need new curriculums and new 
textbooks with consecutive teaching of different parts of mathematics in 
different grades: Arithmetic, Pre-algebra, Geometry, Probability and so on.

          2.Authors wrote that one of the reasons for the little success of 
American students is poor mathematical education of teachers in middle 
schools. I am not sure that this is true. The mathematics in the middle 
school is not too deep to require overqualified teachers. They only have to 
know school mathematics well, pedagogical methods of teaching it and have a 
feeling of responsibility. They also have to like children. This is enough.
It will be interesting for me to hear an answer on this letter from chief 
educational administrators, policy makers of school education and perhaps 
from the authors of the paper.

Sincerely Yevgeniy Traube
                 Retired teacher

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