We Have Low Expectations for American Students in Math & Science!

Who the #@!% would make such a statement? Why would such a statement be made about America’s youth?

If you go the Broad Foundation Education page you will find the answer to the first question.  This is the first of four statements about American youth, followed by “stark” statistics.  The Broad Foundation says:

We have low expectations for American students.

Shame on them!

Image attributed to http://www.tagxedo.com

This is the foundation that has channeled over $400 million into education, primarily in charter schools, training of administrators, and online education.  It’s a very good time to be in the business of influencing and undermining public education these days, especially if you run a very well endowed foundation or corporation.

For years now, these same foundations and corporations are using statistics that misrepresent and pervert what is actually the case.  Data from tests, especially international test results are used by politicians, foundation heads, the media, and even the U.S. Department of Education to make proclamations about the status the country’s educational system.  Needless to say, American youth are beat over the head for not meeting someone else’s expectations.

TIMSS and PISA: The Super Bowls of Education

Two international assessments are: Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Program for International Assessment (PISA).  Each of these international organizations test students in mathematics, reading and science.  PISA studies 15 year-olds, while TIMSS assesses students in grades 4 and 8.  TIMSS claims to assess students’ performance on the curriculum, whereas PISA claims to test student’s abilities to apply what they have learned to real-world problems.  But please keep in mind, these are low stakes bubble tests comprised of a pool of questions that in general are without a context.

Since about 65 countries participate in these assessments, there is the general feeling that the results are important, and provide us with a glimmer of the nature of science education in these various nations.  Some would agree, others would argue that the real issues facing any nation’s educational system are masked by looking at average scores, and simple rankings.  Still others report that the findings are inconsistent.  For example, a country might score low on TIMSS, yet higher on PISA.  Most researchers urge that we use caution when interpreting the results, and not rely of simple averages (now someone’s thinking) to make judgements about student performance.

That said, Dr. Svein Sjoberg, Professor of Science Education, University of Oslo, and Director of the ROSE project (The Relevance of Science Education), an international comparative research project that gathers information about attitudes of students toward science & technology, makes this point regarding PISA:

the main focus in the public reporting is in the form of simple ranking, often in the form of league tables for the participating countries. Here, the mean scores of the national samples in different countries are published. These league tables are nearly the only results that appear in the mass media. Although the PISA researchers take care to explain that many differences (say, between a mean national score of 567 and 572) are not statistically significant, the placement on the list gets most of the public attention. It is somewhat similar to sporting events: The winner takes it all. If you become no 8, no one asks how far you are from the winner, or how far you are from no 24 at any event. Moving up or down some places in this league table from PISA2000 to PISA2003 is awarded great importance in the public debate, although the differences may be non-significant statistically as well as educationally.

If a team doesn’t win the Super Bowl, is that team a failure?  What do you think?  What does the public think?

Are our schools failing?  Is is a fair claim to say we have low expectations for American students?  The answer is no!

Let’s take a look.

The Math and Science Conundrum

It is easy to to make a quick decision about what you think about math and science education when you read headlines in the newspaper that report that the sky is falling on our educational system, or that we are experiencing another Sputnik moment.  But the teaching and learning of mathematics or science, as seen by practicing teachers and collaborating researchers is much more complex (and interesting) than the questions that make up the tests that PISA or TIMSS uses to assess mathematics and science in more than 60 nations.

The conundrum is this.  The vision of science that each of these tests measures gives meaning to scientific literacy that looks inward at the canon of orthodox science—the concepts, processes and products of science.  Science is seen through the lens of the content of science.  But added to this the fact that we have a second vision of science.  This vision of science includes public understanding of science and science literacy about science-related situations.  In this vision we are more interested in the context of learning, asvwell as the meaning that students attach to science and mathematics, and how it relates to their world.  The lens we use here to view science is within the framework of socioscientific issues (SSI).

TIMSS, because it is tied to the current traditional curriculum, is likely measuring the outcomes of vision I.  PISA claims to be measuring students abilities to apply what they learned to real situations.  But science education researchers Troy Sadler and Dana Zeidler disagree with this, and suggest that the test items that have been released publicly seem quite removed from the intent of the SSI movement.

Given this analysis, we are quite safe to claim that these tests are measuring Vision I of science education, and do not provide a full picture of what actually is happening in many classrooms, schools and districts.  Science education is more than learning terms, and concepts.  It should include problem-solving and inquiry, and investigations into problems that are relevant to students lived experiences.


Where do we stand?

PISA and TIMSS are favorite sources of data for foundations and corporations, and especially the U.S. Department of Education (ED) to use to show how poorly American students are doing in mathematics and science.  The Program for International Student Assessment ( PISA) is a system of international assessments that tests 15-year-olds in reading, math and science in 65 countries every three years.  The latest results are available for 2009.  The next will be administered in 2012.

Using scores from tests such as PISA or TIMSS to evaluate and assess science education misleads the public into thinking that science learning has been assessed in the first place.  For instance, in the United States there are more than 15,000 independent school systems, and to use a mean score on a science test, such as PISA, or TIMSS does not describe the qualities or inequalities inherent in the U.S.A.’s schools.  Furthermore, as we showed above, there are at least two visions for teaching science, and these tests seem to assess Vision I, ignoring perhaps more relevant and interesting science learning  that is taking place in many science classrooms.   That said, let’s look at two interpretations of data from these international tests.

Interpretation 1.

For example, take a look at these statistics that you can find here on the Broad Foundation website, most of which were based on PISA results from past years.

  1. American students rank 25th in math and 21st in science compared to students in 30 industrialized countries.
  2. America’s top math students rank 25th out of 30 countries when compared with
    top students elsewhere in the world. [PISA Math Assessment, 2006)]
  3. By the end of 8th grade, U.S. students are two years behind in the math being studied by peers in other countries. [Schmidt, W., 2003 at a presentation]
  4. Sixty eight percent of 8th graders can’t read at their grade level, and most will
    never catch up.

The Broad Foundation paints a picture of American education as a broken system, with little hope for many students, especially those who the Broad Foundation claims can not read at their grade level.

Interpretation 2.

Let’s take a look at another way to examine these data.  I have gone to the ED site that presents PISA data, and downloaded Highlights from PISA 2009 in reading, math and science to provide another view of the results.  Here is another interpretation, point by point.

  1. In mathematics, the only country of similar size and demographics that scored higher than the U.S. was Canada.  Most of the other countries that did score significantly higher were small European or Asian (Korea, Japan) countries.  The U.S. score was above the average score of OECD countries. Although there were 12 countries that scored significantly higher, there were only three that are similar to the U.S. in size and demographics.  We are not ranked 25th in math and 21st in science.   (source: PISA Data 2009)
  2. America’s top students’  performance place near the top of all students tested by PISA.  For example Dr. Gerold Tirozzi, Executive Director of the National Association of Secondary Schools, analyzed the PISA data from the lens of poverty, as measured by the percentage of students receiving government free or reduced lunches.  For example, Tirozzi found that in schools where less than 10% of the students get a free lunch, the reading score would place them number 2 in the ranking of countries.  This is very far from being 25th as reported by the Broad Foundation.
  3. Are we two years behind in the content of  math that is being studied by 8th graders?  There is no data that would support such a claim in the form of statistical analysis.  Curriculum differences have great variance from one country to another.  As in other countries, curriculum is implemented in American schools based now on the Common Core State Standards in mathematics, and the high-stakes tests that used in each state.
  4. It is not true that 68% of 8th graders can’t read at their grade level.  In the 2009 NAEP reading achievement-level results, 76% of American 8th graders were above  the basic level of performance.  The graph below shows 8th grade reading results, 1969 – 2011.  Yes, we have work to do, but the claim that 68% of 8th graders can not read is not justified.
NAEP Eighth-Grade Reading Achievement Results 1969 - 2011


 Trends in Performance

Here is the truth.

I have provided  graphs showing trends in science, mathematics and reading for American students as measured by National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).  You will find that the trends reported by NAEP do not support the Broad Foundation’s opinions of American youth.

Science. U.S. students have significantly improved on the PISA test from 2006 to 2009, as shown in the graph below.  This trend is a positive sign, and disputes the claim that expectations for American students is low.  One of the ways in which data is perverted is to claim that American education, including science education is broken, and that the cause probably has to do with poor performance of “bad” teachers.  It is an unsubstantiated claim.

Average scores of 15-year olds in the U.S. and OECD countries in scienceSource: Fleischman, H.L., Hopstock, P.J., Pelczar, M.P., and Shelley, B.E. (2010). Highlights From PISA 2009: Performance of U.S. 15-YearOld Students in Reading, Mathematics, and Science Literacy in an International Context (NCES 2011-004). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.


Student performance is affected by a number of factors including gender, race/ethnicity, type of school, family income level.  The figure below shows Grade 4 results on the 2009 NAEP science assessment.  The graph shows relationship between family income (as measured by eligibility for reduced-price or free lunch).  Note that students of families with lower incomes perform lower than students from families with higher incomes.  This is an important factor when we interpret test scores, as Dr. Gerold Tirozzi found when he analyzed the PISA data from the lens of poverty.

Grade 4 Science Results, NAEP 2009 by Family Income. Click on the figure to explore this data in more detail.

Mathematics.  According to NAEP results, mathematics scores for 9- and 13-year olds were higher in 2008 when compared to previous years.  There was no significant change in the White – Black or White – Hispanic score gaps compared to 2004.  However, since 1973, Black and Hispanic students have made greater gains than White students.

Trend in Mathematics scores for 9- and 13-year olds 1973 – 2008.                                                                                                                                                    SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), various years, 1973–2008 Long-Term Trend Mathematics Assessments.

Reading. Overall, the national trend in reading showed improvement from 2004 to 2008 for students at three ages (9, 13, and 17). The average reading score for White, Black and Hispanic students was higher than in previous assessments.

Trend in fourth- and eighth-grade NAEP reading scores 1992 - 2011

Have you visited any of the educators in your community that teach science? Have you heard about any of the projects that they doing with their students? What do you think about the Broad Foundation’s crummy assessment of  American students’ performance in math and science and that we should have low expectations.  

What are they thinking?

Quality Science Teaching

The No Child Left Behind Act is linked to the data that shows schools in California are teaching less science because teachers are pressured to prepare students for the required math and English high-stakes tests.

Valerie Strauss writes that Virginia is moving to require that students would only be required to take tests in math and English.  Students would not take tests in science and social studies.  On the one hand, this is a great idea because I believe high-stakes tests should be banned.  But on the other hand, there will be collateral effects on science and social studies because Virginia will put its emphasis on teaching math and English.  That is a bad idea.

Now, back to California.

High Hopes – Few Opportunities

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In a recent research study entitled High Hopes – Few Opportunities: The Status of Elementary Science Education in California the authors reveal that intense pressure to meet accountability goals in mathematics and English has limited time for science, and teachers and schools do not have the infrastructure support needed to consistently provide students with quality science learning opportunities.

The research was conducted by administering 451 surveys to a sample randomly stratified  districts across the state of California.  One administrator from each district was asked to complete the survey.  Then from the 451 districts, 300 schools were randomly selected and their principals, and 3 teachers (selected randomly) from each school were asked to complete the survey.  The response rate was 62%, 56% and 70% respectively. Nine schools out the 300 were selected by a nomination project for in-depth case studies.

Among the findings:

  • 40 percent of elementary teachers say they spend 60 minutes or less teaching science each week.
  • Only One-third of elementary teachers say they feel prepared to teach science.
  • 85 percent of teachers say they have not received any professional development in science during the last three years.
  • Nine in ten principals say science education is very important and should start early.
  • Less than half of principals (44%) believe it is likely that a student would receive high-quality science instruction in his or her school.

According to the researchers, children rarely encounter high-quality science learning opportunities in California elementary schools because the conditions that would support them are rarely in place.  There is evidence in the study that the narrowing of the school curriculum to meet NCLB guidelines has created a curriculum that focuses primarily on math and English to the peril of other subjects.

Why is Quality Science Education Crucial?

In Taking Science to School, a report published by the National Research Council, the science education researchers concluded that all students have the intellectual ability and curiosity to learn science (and social studies).  The research base in science education supports the idea that young students are quite capable of becoming involved in science inquiry and can sort through various forms of knowledge to determine what is reliable and what is not, and indeed, engage in the practice of science.   Furthermore, when students are engaged in hands-on activities that are related to their lived experiences, students become more motivated to learn, and this of course will have positive effects on learning math and English.

When we de-emphasize science in the elementary school curriculum we loose opportunities for students to collaborate, to discuss and talk, and to explore their curiosities and interests—all of which under-gird our reasons for teaching science. Science inquiry should be fostered early in a child’s life, yet the California study showed that very few students are receiving a quality science education, and if Virginia commits schools to testing in math and English only, then schools will find it in their best interest to overexpose students to math and English at the expense of other subjects, especially science and social studies.

What is quality science education?

The researchers identified a number of conditions that influence the quality of science education in K-6 schools and these included teachers, instructional materials and resources, and assessing student progress.  Researchers found that schools with high poverty rates were likely to report a lack of facilities and also that limited help was provided to help them assess student progress.

Quality science education in the elementary classroom is dependent on the school district encouraging science in the curriculum, and providing the professional training for teachers to implement such a program.  According to recommendations from the National Research Council, students should be engaged actively in science activities to find how science works.  They need to collaborate with other students, and in so doing use the language of science to explore questions of interest to themselves and their peers.

Although hands-on science is an important mantra for science teaching, students need to have opportunities to build on their prior knowledge and interest by engaging in the practice of science—or as teachers would say, science inquiry.  Students need to learn science concepts, yes, but they should do this within a context that has meaning to them.

The amount of time devoted to science teaching in California elementary schools is about 90 minutes per week, and the amount of funds available to improving science education has diminished from about $10 million to about $1.3 million.  Lower numbers of teachers are involved in staff development and little support for new science.

Although the present economic state of the country, and California had led to diminished resources in science education, the NCLB Act probably has contributed more to the amount of time spent teaching science, and in some instances the pedagogy implemented to teach science.

Will Banning Science and Social Studies Tests Result in High Scores in Math and Reading?

NAEP test results are the only accurate performance measure that we have.  The tests are low-stakes.  The samples are large enough to produce reliable national and state results, but can not be used to rank schools, districts or students (please see Richard Rothstein’s article on this).  Even in a state like California where researchers indicated that schools were not teaching science because they had to spend more time on math and reading, NAEP reading scores did not change relative to the national scores, and increased very little.  With all of the effort since the passage of NCLB on math and reading, the overall change is very little, nationally or by state.

Average scale scores in Reading comparing California to the Nation, 1998 - 2011 (NAEP)
Average Scale scores in Reading comparing California to the Nation, Grade 8, 1999 - 2011 (NAEP)

High-stakes testing has created a conundrum in American education. Whether Virginia changes which subjects are tested, the evidence does not support the legislators who came up with this idea in the first place. It simply reinforces that NCLB has created a teach-to-the-test teaching style, and until legislators, and corporate leaders move to the side and listen to educators, we’ll see very little change in test scores.

Obama Says: Stop Teaching to the Test; Teach With Creativity and Passion

In his 2012 State of the Union address, President Obama included a section of his speech that focused on education, not only K-12, but he also challenged colleges and universities to be more creative about how they work with students, and as well as the hundreds of thousands of young students who are not yet American citizens, and “live every day with the threat of deportation.”

I want to focus on some of the comments that the President made in his address.  Keep in mind that I believe that President Obama is struggling with how to deal with education because the policies of the U.S. Department of Education (ED) conflict with some of core beliefs that I quoted in a letter to the President that I posted here.  In his book Dreams from My Father, President Obama talked about his desire to become involved with the public schools in Chicago.  Here is the quote and the context of what I believe represents his core beliefs about students and learning:

I want to recall a section in that chapter for my readers that was very powerful, and supports the humanistic paradigm that I am proposing here. You and your colleague & friend Johnnie had decided to visit a high school, and the principal of the school introduced you to one of the school counselors, Mr. Asante Moran. He was, according to the principal, interested in establishing a mentorship program for young men in the school.

In his office, which was decorated with African themes, you discovered that Mr. Moran had visited Kenya 15 years earlier, and he indicated that it had a profound effect on him. In the course of your short meeting with Mr. Moran, he clearly told you that real education was not happening for black children, and then he offered you his view on what “real education” might be. Here is what he said on that Spring day in 1987:

Just think about what a real education for these children would involve. It would start by giving a child an understanding of himself, his world, his culture, his community. That’s the starting point of any educational process. That’s what makes a child hungry to learn—the promise of being part of something, of mastering his environment. But for the black child, everything’s turned upside down. From day one, what’s he learning about? Someone else’s history. Someone else’s culture. Not only that, this culture he’s supposed to learn is the same culture that’s systematically rejected him, denied his humanity (p. 158, Dreams from My Father).

Starting with the child as he or she is, and helping them connect to their environment—this is the core of humanistic teaching.  Most teachers know and try and act on this humanistic philosophy, but for many, it is an upstream battle.

The Department of Education is not a platform that suggests that learning should start with the child.  The cornerstone of the current Department of Education is the Race to the Top program and the new Waiver Program of the No Child Left Behind Act.  In these two programs, education for the child is a two-fold top down endeavor in which (1)  states must adopt a one-size fits-all set of standards (Common Core State Standards) that all children should attain regardless of where students live and (2) students must be subjected to high-stakes tests that will be used to determine their progress and graduation.  And to top it off, all states that want to continue to receive Federal funds through these two programs must use student achievement data to evaluate the effectiveness of teachers.

This approach has resulted in an educational system that is data driven so much so that it is in the best of interests of schools, administrators, and teachers to insist that  teaching to the test is a priority.  Remarkably the ED insists that states must tie student achievement scores to teacher evaluation, even when the prestigious National Academies of Sciences doesn’t think this is a good idea.  What we have seen is abusive behavior toward teachers resulting in psychological assaults, or what has become known as “teacher bashing.”

Did the President Open the Door?

Did President Obama, in his address last night, open the door to to a more creative approach to teaching?

In his address, the President made a few comments about teachers and teaching that might just reveal that he is interested in opening the door questioning some of the basic tenets of the ED.  Here are a few sentences from his address:

At a time when other countries are doubling down on education, tight budgets have forced states to lay off thousands of teachers.  We know a good teacher can increase the lifetime income of a classroom by over $250,000.  A great teacher can offer an escape from poverty to the child who dreams beyond his circumstance.  Every person in this chamber can point to a teacher who changed the trajectory of their lives.  Most teachers work tirelessly, with modest pay, sometimes digging into their own pocket for school supplies — just to make a difference.

Teachers matter.  So instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let’s offer schools a deal.  Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones.  And in return, grant schools flexibility:  to teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn.  That’s a bargain worth making.  (Emphasis mine).

For Obama to say that teachers should teach creativity, and stop teaching to the test is a remarkable statement give how the Department of Education is advocating high-stakes tests based on a common set of standards.  Many researchers would argue that continuing to use high-stakes tests will not result in teachers not teaching to the test.  Until high-stakes tests are banned from being used to make decisions about student learning and teacher performance, we will continue to be immobilized.

Did Obama open the door to altering the fixed and seemingly unchanging policies of NCLB and the Race to the Top?

I don’t know.  But if he would confer with Governor Brown of California, he might hear an alternate view.  California has rejected asking for a waiver on the NCLB act not only for the added billions it will cost, but because the deeper elements of NCLB and Race to the Top contradict some of Brown’s beliefs. He has stated that  principals and teachers know more about education, and that the testing syndrome that we have created not only takes a lot of time to administer (not to mention the cost), but appears to curb teachers creativity and engagement with students.

Diane Ravitch wrote about her recent her travels and speeches in California.  She wonders whether California will start a national revolt against bad ideas.  I do hope that Obama comes in contact with Brown, and California’s progressive superintendent of education.


Which System is Broken: American Public Schools or the U.S. Congress?

It has been in vogue for at least a decade, maybe longer, to question American teacher’s abilities to educate its youth.  According to some politicians, America has had a series of Sputnik moments, starting in 1957 with the launch of the world’s first satellite, to most recently our annual penchant to ogle over the test score results that happen in Shanghai, Finland or Korea.  Think tank “scholars” use these test results to keep telling us that the sky is falling in the education of American youth.  Doomsday is straight ahead.

Many of these think tank’s believe that the American school system is broken and needs to be reformed.  The NCLB act, the signature education reform initiative of the Bush administration has created a system of education that pits teachers and unions against politicians, U.S. and state department’s of education, and well funded corporations and private foundations.  The deal is that if we could just get rid of the “bad” teachers, our students would learn so much more.  By using high-stakes tests in a few subject areas, and then statistically manipulating the achievement test data from one year to the next, we can determine the value-added affect of each teacher, and use this to weed out the “bad” teachers, and reward the good ones.

The problem is that the statistical use of the value added measure is unreliable, and very inconsistent even with the same teacher.  How could we possibly let the politicians, and bureaucrats get away with this when there is little to no research to support their reform efforts.  As I have written elsewhere, high-stakes test should be banned, and the decision making put back into the hands of those of who know students best: teachers and principals in the schools of America.

Now, back to the headline: Which system is broken: American public schools or the U.S. Congress.

I personally don’t think either is broken.  But, the American public school system has a lot more going for it than Congress.

For example, in a very recent Gallup survey of American citizen’s confidence in various entities in its country, 72% of American’s had either a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in American public schools.

They had 12% confidence in the Congress.

If politicians and other bureaucrats think that the American system of education is broken, what do they think of the system they are working in?

Every time international test score from PISA or TIMSS are released, American students score near the middle, and politicians and think tank experts use this data to show how far behind the U.S. is compared to other countries, especially in mathematics and science.  I say this is preposterous, and so does Yong Zhao, Presidential Chair and Associate Dean for Global Education, University of Oregon.  He analyzes American education in the context of comparing American education to the education in other countries, especially China in his book Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization.  He suggests that reform proponents, business executives and politicians have misjudged American education, and have convinced themselves that The Grass is Greener in other countries.

If science and mathematics teaching and learning is inferior to learning in so many other countries, how do we explain, as Dr. Zhao wrote, this from President Obama in a State of the Union speech:

America still has the largest, most prosperous economy in the world. No workers — no workers are more productive than ours.  No country has more successful companies, or grants more patents to inventors and entrepreneurs.  We’re the home to the world’s best colleges and universities, where more students come to study than any place on Earth.

What do you think about American public school education compared to the work that is done in the U.S. Congress?  Do you have more confidence in teachers, or politicians?  What is the basis for your choice?  Tell us what you think.


The Education Bellwether Governor

In 1982, John Naisbitt published, Megatrends, a book about trends that were transforming our lives.  In the book he identified five states as “bellweather” states—states that were setting trends for the rest of the nation.  The “bellwether” states he identified in 1982 were California, Florida, Washington, Colorado, and Connecticut.

Anthony Cody, on his blog Living in Dialog talked about education comments made by Governor Jerry Brown.  Cody picked up what Governor Brown was saying, and shows how Brown’s ideas might take California in a different direction, bucking the trend to standardized education, and test the heck out of American students.

Brown believes that decision-making for schools should be centered in those closest to students—-school boards, principals, and teachers, not the people who staff the federal and state departments of education.

He also is calling for a reduction in the number of tests that are given each year, so that results can be used in a formative way as apposed to the high-stakes environment of our test-crazed culture.

Brown has suggested that evaluation should include more qualitative measures, such as including school visits to classrooms to see what teachers are actually doing.  But the most important thing that he said was “My hunch is that principals and teachers know the most…”

Anthony Cody has documented Brown’s views on education, and you can read them here, here, and here.

bellwether is any entity in a given arena that serves to create or influence trends or to presage future happenings (Wikipedia).  Is California’s governor a bellwether governor?

It’s hard to say, but given his views as expressed above, and the activist momentum that is gaining ground in California, there is hope that over the next year or so, we will see some action on these front.  Would there be a movement to suspend high-stakes testing?  Would the locus of control move from the department of education to the science department?

What do you think?  Do you believe that California’s governor has ideas that might be a good sign for educational reform?  What other bellwether governor’s are out there?