|International Science Education
Survey Gets Mixed Reception
The Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) results, depending on whom you ask, are a “crisis,” irrelevant, or somewhere in between. Rep. Bob Etheridge (D-NC) called the results a “wake-up call” in a March 4 hearing on math and science education held by the House Committee on Science.
Released last month, the results showed U.S. high school seniors ranking at the very bottom in physics and advanced mathematics. In general mathematics, the United States did better only than South Africa and Cyprus. At the hearing, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr. (R-WI) said the TIMSS results will serve as background for the House Committe on Science’s National Science Policy Study. Other Members referred to TIMSS as an impetus for improvement in math and science education as well.
“Maybe we let kids wander all over hell in high school, but that preserves some energy for later when it is better spent,” Harvard Chemistry Professor and Nobel laureate Dudley Herschbach half-joked in the New York Times. Experts say the U.S. system nurtures more creativity. Downplaying the results, columnists have been writing of our national obsession with high-technology, arguing that we are overstating the need for advanced math and science skills. A study by economists Anthony Carnevale and Stephen Rose reported that only 4 percent of occupations require advanced math or science. Dr. Anne C. Petersen of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, in a written statement for the Subcommittee on Technology’s March 10 hearing on women in science, warned that it is “incorrect and dangerous” to dismiss the TIMSS results. U.S. corporations will locate wherever they can find the talent they need at the lowest cost, she wrote. They might find the overseas talent here, in the American university system. There is a steady stream of foreigners filling U.S. graduate and professional programs in math and science and many of them stay.
Gerald Bracey, a research psychologist, questions the TIMSS results. He asserts that students in other countries who took the test were older, spend less time at a job than American students, and, as a result of intense competition for university admittance, work harder. Americans, knowing they can always get serious in college, have a fairly casual attitude towards the high school years, according to Bracey. Some experts, who have been slow even to admonish high school students’ attitudes, put the burden on the far end of the educational pipeline. They claim that the American university system, possibly the best in the world, makes up for the many failings of our high schools.
Though U.S. seniors ranked poorly, TIMSS results showed fourth-graders above the international average in math and science. Eighth-graders scored above average in math and below average in science. Education researchers are in despair over the promise of 4th-graders “dashed against the undemanding curriculum of the nation’s middle schools.” Textbooks seem to be a common source of blame. “We have the fattest textbooks in the world,” says Marc S. Tucker, President of the National Center on Education. Textbooks are “a mile wide and an inch deep,” maintain Gilbert A. Valverde and William H. Schmidt of the U.S. National Research Center for TIMSS. Worse than heavy but shallow textbooks is the fact that the same elementary topics that form the core curriculum in 4th grade appear again and again in higher grades. So, as students move through middle school and high school, the curriculum is not only less challenging, it is repetitive, state Valverde and Schmidt.
The National Science Policy Study, led by Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-MI), will develop a long-range science and technology policy and review U.S. science and math education programs. The first in a series of hearings this session on math and science education was held on March 4. A myriad of solutions to what seems like the ever-present educational crisis were suggested by education researchers and professionals. New York University Psychology Professor Susan Carey believes the goal of education should be teaching for understanding. As scientific knowledge is rapidly expanding, knowing how we know what we know (critical thinking) is invaluable. Bill Nye, of public television’s “Bill Nye the Science Guy,” helps illuminate the process of science. Sandra L. Parker, a Virginia teacher, implements hands-on learning in her classroom. From President Clinton to Members of Congress to students and teachers themselves, teachers are cited as the most important factor in science education. Hearing participants strongly agreed that, if education is to improve, teachers need to experience the same excitement in science and math that they are trying to convey to students. Rep. Matt Salmon (R-AZ), upon hearing the TIMSS results, asked the Congressional Research Service to look into issues such as teachers’ salary and teacher-student ratios.
In light of the recent hearings on women in science, technology, and engineering, it is interesting to note that boys significantly outperformed girls in math and science in all 21 countries tested except Cyprus, South Africa, and the United States. TIMSS results were good news to Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) who cited the test results as showing that minority students are as able as non-minority students.
President Clinton also responded to the TIMSS results, calling for increased
student access to the information highway, better prepared teachers, smaller
classes, modern school buildings, ending social promotion (letting kids
go on to the next grade even if they have not mastered the skills required),
and voluntary national standards. Most other countries have a national
curriculum; but respect for local control in the United States has resulted
in state and national standards that provide little guidance for implementation,
according to Valverde and Schmidt. If there are to be national standards,
there should be few and they should be clear, argued witnesses at the hearing.