The news last week that Shanghai students achieved the top scores in math on the international PISA exam was for some of us not exactly a wake-up call (as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan characterized it) or a Sputnik moment (as President Obama called it).
We've seen this result before. We've seen the reactions and the theories and the excuses that purport to explain why the US does so poorly in math. In fact, there are three main variations used to explain why Chinese/Asian students do so well in international exams:
Version 1: They are taught using rote learning and then regurgitate the results on exams that test how well they memorize the procedures of how to solve specific problems.
Version 2: They are taught using the reform methods of a "problem based approach" that doesn't rely on drills, and instills critical thinking and higher order thinking skills
Version 3: The teacher or the culture produces the proper conditions for learning
This argument is based on the observation that the education-valued culture manifests itself in ways that are unlikely to happen here: long school days, after-school math “clubs” in which math facts and procedures are drilled (pointed to by some as evidence that students in China are engaging in rote learning), long hours studying and teachers who know the subject matter extremely well. . . . The “culture argument” also paints a picture of U.S. culture as totally oblivious to educational values and ignores the subcultures that place a value equal to that seen in China and other countries. Those are the students whose goals are to enter the top universities in the US, who work very hard and take AP classes and exams. Some of the parents of those students have protested against the adoption of substandard math programs such as Investigations in Number, Data and Space, and Everyday Math. These are the parents who have been told by school boards that the traditional method of teaching math may have worked for some, but not for all. Those are the parents who have discovered that the traditional methods of teaching math (in the 50’s and 60’s) work very well indeed, and are similar in some respects to how it is taught overseas.
decline at the top
Speaking of our best students, the other reaction to mediocre U.S. performance on international tests I've seen -- which shows up in the comments to Barry's article -- is the claim that our best students are doing as well as the best students elsewhere. This is a variant of the 'culture' argument: American slackers are bringing down the mean.
Here's a passage from the Baltimore Curriculum Project video. In this section, William Schmidt, who headed one of the TIMSS studies, is talking about the best American students:
8:05 Schmidt: This system of ours has failed the elite kids, too. This is a little known fact because it wasn't emphasized very much, but in the early TIMSS study there was a high school specialist exam for those kids that were the AP physics kids and those that were the AP calculus kids. Those kids were last among their counterparts in the rest of the world. That is, if you took the elite track in the French system that was leading to math and science, these [American] kids were at the bottom. So we're failing those kids just as much as we're failing the kids on the other spectrum.
William Schmidt Baltimore Curriculum Project
Dr. William H. Schmidt of Michigan State University
Leading Minds K-12 Math Education Forum, April 24, 2008 in Baltimore.
U.S. TIMSS NATIONAL RESEARCH COORDINATOR
MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY