Lessons from TIMSS
A Viewpoint from Robert B. Schwartz
Robert B. Schwartz is President of Achieve, Inc. and a member of the Administration, Planning, and Social Policy Faculty at Harvard Graduate School of Education.
What are we to make of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS)? Certainly those commentators who believe that American schools are in crisis and that radical restructuring is required have been given fresh ammunition. Now that the 12th grade TIMSS results are out, it is clear that the performance of our schools gets progressively weaker as students move from elementary to middle to high school. It is hard to see how anyone can take comfort in the fact that, of the 21 nations that participated in the 12th grade tests, U.S. students outperform only Cyprus and South Africa in general math and science knowledge. Perhaps even more damaging to our self-esteem is the revelation that our most accomplished students - those taking advanced mathematics and physics - are at the bottom of the pack when compared to their counterparts in other countries. The fact that the 12th grade pool did not include the Asian nations which routinely outperform us makes the results even more sobering.
Given our national penchant for averting our eyes from bad news, it was predictable that some in the education community would attempt to dismiss or discredit TIMSS, but a recent front page New York Times story (March 2, 1998) went overboard. "Freedom in Math Class May Outweigh Tests" asserted the headline, and several prominent academicians proceeded to tell us that these tests don't measure what is important, that the continuing robust performance of our economy is proof that our educational system is doing its job, and that any attempt to improve the performance of our students on these international assessments risks stifling the very qualities of creativity and innovation that we most prize in our society.
If the public debate about the meaning of these results is conducted only between the doomsayers and the "Don't worry, be happy" crowd, we will all be the losers. We will miss an opportunity to benefit from the important lessons of TIMSS, which are found not in the comparative ranking of countries but in the extraordinary sub-studies that accompanied the administration of these tests.
The three TIMSS studies that have been reported to date have profound implications for American education. The first study, focusing on textbooks, strongly suggests that, in the absence of clear agreements about what students are supposed to know and be able to do at each grade or cluster of grades, our textbooks err on the side of inclusiveness, treating a huge number of topics superficially rather than a handful of topics in depth. This is in sharp contrast to the math and science texts in higher performing nations, which are closely aligned with a more focused and sharply defined curriculum.
The second study examines videotaped classrooms in Germany, Japan, and the U.S., and this is enormously instructive in what it reveals about the structure of lessons and the focus of pedagogy in the three countries. Simply put, the American lessons, especially when contrasted with Japanese classrooms, focus much more on procedures and skills, and much less on concepts, deductive reasoning, and understanding.
Finally, there are detailed case studies of the same three countries designed to supplement the survey data obtained from teachers, students, administrators, and academic experts. The case studies were structured to elicit information about such topics as national standards, teacher training, grouping practices, and the non-school factors affecting the lives of students. The findings are illuminating, especially those regarding ability grouping (we track much earlier than either Germany or Japan) and the preparation and induction of teachers.
What lessons should Americans draw from the TIMSS studies? In my view, these studies confirm the wisdom of the path we have begun - that of setting clear, high standards for what we expect all students to know and be able to do - but they also underscore the crucial importance of aligning everything else we do with those standards, from the initial preparation of teachers and the selection of texts and other curriculum materials, through the design of new assessments and the ongoing professional education and support of teachers. This is no small task in a country where responsibility for making educational policy is dispersed and fragmented. However, without tighter alignment of the various elements that typically are grouped together under the heading of systemic reform, it is hard to see how we can make significant improvements in our educational performance.
One of the ironies of the hand wringing over the TIMSS results is that it is in mathematics and science that we have the greatest likelihood of making real progress, for it is in these fields where we have the broadest agreement about standards, the strongest state and district infrastructures, and the most promising curriculum development tied to the standards. Not incidentally, it is in these fields that we also have the strongest national leadership and resources for systemic reform, thanks to the work of NSF, NCTM, the National Academy of Sciences, AAAS, and such exemplary R&D organizations as TERC.