Thursday, April 9, 2009

Update on Math Standards Issue

In February, a large portion of mathematics educators in New Jersey were up in arms about the state's revisions to the mathematics standards. The New Jersey Department of Education (NJDOE) has held back the revisions for further scrutiny after the uproar caused by the proposed standards. The issue of how New Jersey schoolchildren should be taught is one that continuously arises in the education community. There is a group of educators and administrators who believe that children should be taught using traditional math, and a group of educators who believe that children should be taught using reform math. There are many different programs that are considered reform math, including the Connected Mathematics Project and Everyday Mathematics.

One of the main problems that contributes to this issue is the fact that conducting research of different teaching styles is so hard to do. The results of research that has been done can vary because of many factors, including the degree of teacher and administration support and training as well as environmental and personal issues in the childrens' lives. When conducting a scientific study it is important to have a control group as well as an experimental group. So, if one were researching the effects of Everyday Mathematics on test scores, research would have to be done on multiple classes who are not taught using Everyday Mathematics (the control group) and multiple classes who are taught using Everyday Mathematics (the experimental group).

When conducting studies like this, the researchers try to match the control and experimental groups as much as possible, through such factors as geographic location and past test scores. They also try and use the same teacher in all the classes for accuracy. But if the teacher prefers a reform math teaching style, he or she may not be as enthusiastic about teaching the traditional style, which could affect how the students respond and perform. Also, different children learn in different ways, and may respond better to one teaching style than another. It can't be definitely proven that a certain teaching style is better than another. However, with an increase in test scores being a common result, there are overall more positive results than negative when researching reform math.

One of the main issues with the math standards revisions is whether calculators should be used or not. As with the teaching styles, it is hard to research this effectively, and oftentimes it just comes down to a matter of opinion. Studies have found that students who are previously unenthusiastic or not motivated in math classes show signs of increased motivation when they are allowed to use calculators. Those who are for calculator use would say that this is possibly because it is exciting for them to be able to use a tool that is similar to a computer or that they have seen their parents use. Those who are against calculator use would say that it could also be because the students are excited that they don't have to think through the problems using their brain only and it is easier for them to complete the problem.

With such a sensitive topic, it is important that the state tread carefully. Education is an issue that many citizens care about. With so many different opinions about how students should be taught, it is inevitable that some will be disappointed and some will be satisfied with however the math standards are revised. The state must try and come to a compromise for all concerned parties, which will be an interesting challenge for the NJDOE.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Report Reveals How the US Education System Stacks Up Against Other G-8 Countries

This March, a study was released by the US Department of Education and the National Center for Education Statistics which compared the education systems of the United States and other G8 countries. The countries included in the study were the Russian Federation, Japan, France, Germany, Italy, the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom sometimes reported separately as Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland. Canada sometimes reported by province as well. The study used results from four primary sources: the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Indicators of National Education Systems (INES). The full report can be viewed here, but for a quick summary, read on.

As far as the percentage of 3-4 year olds who attend a preschool program or school, the United States was found to be behind all other participating G8 countries. France and Italy reported that all or almost all of their 3-4 year olds were enrolled in school. Germany, the United Kingdom and Japan had 97%, 90% and 83% respectively. The United States reported only 48% of the 3-4 year old population enrolled in a preschool program or school.

There were also extensive studies about math, reading and science performance in the 4th grade. In the reading category (from PIRLS), 4th grade females performed better than males in all G8 countries. The PIRLS test relies on a scale from 0 to 1,000, with 500 being the average. As far as total average scores, the Russian Federation led the pack with 565, followed by Italy (551), Germany (548), the United States (540), England (539), Scotland (527) and France (522).

In the mathematics assessment (from TIMSS), 4th grade males outperformed females in Italy, Germany, Scotland, England and the United States. 4th grade females outperformed males in Japan and the Russian Federation. The TIMSS test relies on scales which break up into different benchmarks (low, intermediate, high and advanced). Japan led the other countries in the highest percentage of 4th grade students to reach the advanced benchmark (23%), followed by the Russian Federation (16%), England (16%), the United States (10%), Germany (6%), Italy (6%) and Scotland (4%). This information is especially interesting when discussing the math standards issue in New Jersey and the United States as a whole. How is Japan teaching math? Perhaps the United States should look to Japanese math educators for clues.

In the science assessment (also from TIMSS), 4th grade males scored higher than females in the United States, Scotland, Germany and Italy. 4th grade females scored higher than males in England, Japan and the Russian Federation. As far as reaching the advanced benchmark, the Russian Federation led with the highest percentage (16%), followed by the United States (15%), England (14%), Italy (13%), Japan (12%), Germany (10%) and Scotland (4%).

The study also conducted teacher assessments. When students needed help reading, one of the most common responses by teachers was to ask the student's parents to work with them at home. Two other common responses were to work individually with the student or to have the student work with other students.

When asked whether they always had access to a remedial reading specialist, 4th grade teachers in the United States led (34%), followed by England (24%), and France, Germany and Italy (all with less than 10%).

Principals were asked about behavior problems in the 8th grade. 60% of Scotland's 8th grade principals reported at least one weekly occurrence of a classroom disturbance. Scotland was followed by the United States (55%), England (54%), Italy (46%), the Russian Federation (14%), and Japan (8%). As far as weekly occurrences of verbal abuse between students, the United States led (39%), followed by England and Scotland (23%), Italy (20%), Japan (5%) and the Russian Federation (1%).

As far as first university degrees (corresponding to a Bachelor's Degree in the United States), the United States was the only country to award more degrees in arts and humanities than science, math and engineering. This is important to consider when analyzing the fact that there is such a shortage of math and science teachers in the United States today.

Teachers must also engage in professional development to keep themselves up to date with the subjects they teach. The Russian Federation reported the most science and math teachers to engage in professional development at both the 4th and 8th grade levels (66% and 84% respectively), followed closely by the United States (60% and 81%).

With respect to starting salaries at both the primary and secondary school levels, the study found that Germany pays its teachers the most, followed by the United States, England and Scotland (both with the same salary rates), Japan, Italy and France. When discussing the countries' expenditures, the United States spent the highest percentage of its gross domestic product (GDP) on education than all other G8 countries (6.7%).

While this study is to be respected, there is a certain percentage of error that should be taken into account when observing a study of this scale and type. For example, many of the teacher assessment categories (such as access to reading specialists and the occurrences of classroom disturbances) were conducted by asking teachers or administrators to report the answers. One has to expect that there may be some error there, especially if the schools do not keep clear records, or if the teacher or administrator didn't check the records and used their own memory to determine their responses. As far as errors due to the large scale of the study, some countries did not participate in certain areas of the study. Also, as explained previously, some countries reported differently in separate categories, such as the United Kingdom reporting as Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland. For a full explanation of possible errors, read the report in its entirety here.

On the other hand most of the information from the study, such as the PIRLS and TIMSS test scores, is reliable and can definitely be used to draw some conclusions about the different education systems. Salary rates and the amount of degrees awarded can also be trusted as being fairly reliable, since the study relies on concrete numbers that can be checked and rechecked.

This study shed some light on the different education systems of the G8 countries. The math and science information is very interesting when discussing some current education issues in the United States, such as the revision of the math standards in New Jersey and the shortage of math and science teachers in the United States as a whole. Perhaps educators in the United States should look to other, more successful systems for solutions to problems throughout the United States' education system.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Council of the Great City Schools

The Council of the Great City Schools (CGCS) is a national coalition of 66 urban public school districts which focuses on advancing urban education in America. Many of the CGCS' goals are similar to the goals of the Center for STEM Ed, such as furthering teacher recruitment and retention and narrowing the achievement gap between urban and non-urban school districts.

It is encouraging to see the CGCS website and the projects that are being undertaken in order to achieve these goals. Since CGCS is a national organization, it has the ability to conduct national surveys and other large-scale research that the Center for STEM Ed does not have the budget for.

One of the CGCS' consistent projects involves surveying the schools in the coalition's districts to try and discover solutions to problems in urban education that may already be in place. For instance, if an urban school in one of the CGCS' participating districts is doing something that is helping to narrow achievement gaps, the CGCS will find out and be able to spread the knowledge of those practices to other urban schools.

I highly recommend visiting the CGCS website. Also, an article about the views of the CGCS about No Child Left Behind can be found here.