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Can We Compete?

In the face of new global rivalries, the answer is still yes—and American math and science education has the world watching.

By Cindy Long

It’s an important year for Bradley Jamison, a junior at Freedom High School in Loudoun County, Virginia. Not only does she have a heavy course load—including AP calculus, AP physics, and AP chemistry—but she’ll also take the SAT, the test that decides whether she’ll get into the college of her choice, where she hopes to pursue a math degree.

American math whiz Bradley Jamison.

It’s also a pivotal year for Shonai Someshwar, a tenth- grader in Bangalore, India, her country’s booming high-tech capital. This year, Shonai and her classmates will also take an important test: the Secondary School Certificate examinations that determine where they will go to junior college, the intense pre-university program that constitutes “high school”—11th and 12th grade—in India.

Shonai has her sights set on Sophia’s High School, where she’ll study psychology, an unusual choice among India’s students. Most of Shonai’s friends have other ambitions—to attend a science and engineering-focused junior college. It’s what their parents want, Shonai says, because it’s where the jobs are.

“My friends are encouraged to take up math and science,” says Shonai. “I think that very few students actually have an interest for the subjects...that most of them do [it] for the job opportunities. Our society feels that there is more money and more scope for science and math.”

It’s India’s—and much of Asia’s—appetite for science and math that makes some Americans nervous. It’s also a large part of what prompted President Bush’s American Competitiveness Initiative (ACI), announced during his January 2006 State of the Union address. The 10-year, $136 billion initiative earmarks $380 million for math and science instruction in the 2007 fiscal year. Following Bush’s speech, the media latched on to the fear that America’s foothold as a technological and economic superpower was slipping. A week after the State of the Union, the cover of Time asked a worried nation, “Is America Flunking Science?”

“I think it’s a fear-driven generalization based on the rapid economic growth of [India and China], coupled with their size,” says Gerald Bracey, education researcher and author of What You Need To Know About the War Against America’s Public Schools .

The fear of competition is nothing new. In March 1958, a year after Russia launched Sputnik, the cover of Life magazine proclaimed a “Crisis in Education,” which concluded that the Soviets beat America into space because their students were more serious and more advanced in science and math. It happened again in the 1980s when Japanese cars and electronics flooded the American marketplace. In 1983, a government commission on excellence in education issued A Nation at Risk , warning of a “rising tide of mediocrity” among American students. Many of those students went on to lead the dot-com revolution of the 1990s.

But now, as countries like China and India emerge as economic powerhouses, the calls of crisis have returned. Three months after the State of the Union, Intel Chairman Craig Barrett spoke at a conference in New Orleans entitled “Is America Losing Its Edge?” Education reporters packed into a hotel ballroom to listen to Barrett’s dire predictions about the performance of American students in math and science and the demise of the U.S. dominance of the global marketplace.

“I want my grandchildren to have the same opportunities I had when the U.S. was the only game in town,” he said, adding that Intel, which has partnered with NEA on the tech-focused Partnership for 21st Century Skills, could hire only foreign employees from countries such as India and China and still be competitive. Not because of a cheaper high-tech workforce, he insisted, but because of a more educated workforce than that in the United States. He recommended finding out what’s happening in classrooms around the world, saying that if he were an educator, he’d “buy a ticket to other countries to see how they do it.”

That’s essentially what’s happening in Louisville, Kentucky, where administrators and teachers are working with General Electric on a multi-million-dollar overhaul of math and science education, with an eye on practices used by the best schools in countries like Japan and Singapore (see the “Singapore on the Ohio” sidebar).

But it’s not as simple as buying a plane ticket. Nor is it as one-sided as critics would lead us to believe. While American educators look overseas for solutions, many of those countries are examining our classrooms, hoping to replicate the American model of success.

LAST OCTOBER, Bradley Jamison stood before a white board crammed with row after dizzying row of calculations. Her AP calculus classmates called out suggestions to help her puzzle through the problem. Once it was solved, teacher Carl Giesy, who has two math degrees and a master’s in education, led the class in a round of applause. The entire time, a delegation of teachers and officials from the Chinese Ministry of Education stood in the back of the room, marveling at the level of interaction between the students and their teacher.

“We think in the U.S. there is greater respect for the students, that they are viewed as people,” says Dinghua Wang, director of China’s Ministry of Education Policy Division for Basic Education. “We also admire how teachers are able to motivate students.”

Motivating students to think creatively is now a goal of the Chinese ministry, which has sent delegations to classrooms like Giesy’s across the United States as part of a reform movement to increase student ingenuity. Chinese students may perform well on tests because of an ability to recite rote knowledge, but education officials are concerned that they lack the ability U.S. students have to apply that knowledge once the tests are over.

“Global competitiveness depends on students’ abilities to innovate and invent, not on their test scores,” agrees Yong Zhao, professor and director of the U.S.-China Center for Research on Educational Excellence at Michigan State University. America has long embraced its students’ passion, ingenuity, dreams, and ideas—none of which can be measured by test scores, says Zhao. Asia, on the other hand, has traditionally valued test scores above all else. Even where scores are high and innovative educational approaches are valued, as in Singapore, it’s still felt that testing plays too much of a role.

“Yours is a talent meritocracy, ours is an exam meritocracy,” Tharman Shanmugaratnam, Minister of Education of Singapore, said in a Newsweek interview. “There are some parts of the intellect that we are not able to test well—like creativity, curiosity, a sense of adventure, ambition....America has a culture of learning that challenges conventional wisdom, even if it means challenging authority. These are the areas where Singapore must learn from America.”

But the increased focus on standardized testing here threatens to push American education in the wrong direction, experts warn. “We’re reducing our ability to be competitive with measures like NCLB,” Zhao says. “We’re disadvantaging our students by celebrating points and test scores rather than what really matters.”

Ever since the first international comparison of student performance in math and science in the 1960s, it’s been hard to see clearly through the blizzard of scores and statistics, many of which paint a grim, if superficial, picture. Intel’s Barrett pointed to a National Academies study called "Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future." According to the study, 70,000 engineers graduated from U.S. higher ed institutions in 2004, compared to 350,000 in India and more than 600,000 in China.

These figures have been cited far and wide, but Duke University researchers debunked them, finding that the United States annually produces nearly double the number of engineers suggested by the report, while both China and India produce dramatically less, with varying levels of expertise. According to Salil Tripathi in the Wall Street Journal , the National Academies comparison was false: Washington apples were being compared to Alphonso mangoes and Chinese litchis.

Like comparisons of engineers, ranking American students among their Asian counterparts is akin to counting “apples and aardvarks,” says Bracey, author of Reading Educational Research: How to Avoid Getting Statistically Snookered . For instance, it’s not possible to claim based on test scores that American students are falling behind those in India and China, as neither country is included in the three most widely known international assessments: Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), or Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS).

A Chinese Ministry of Education Delegation visited an Aerospace Science class at Freedom High School.

In addition, he says, once you get beyond the best students at elite schools, children in both countries face a widespread lack of access to education. Only 40 percent of Chinese students make it past ninth grade, and 37 percent of Indians are illiterate, according to Bracey.

Even among countries participating in global assessments, the comparisons are not as cut-and-dried as those who cite "Rising Above the Gathering Storm" might believe. In 2005, a University of Pennsylvania researcher analyzed TIMSS and PISA surveys conducted since 1990 and found that U.S. students generally perform above average, not “dead last,” as columnist Charles Krauthammer has written.

Among the biggest problems with many international surveys is that they make inaccurate or unfair comparisons, adds Erling Boe, a professor in the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. For example, the 1995 TIMMS showed U.S. high school students outscored by counterparts in every surveyed nation except Lithuania, Cyprus, and South Africa. Sounds alarming—until you consider that students were tested during their final year of secondary school “as defined by each participating nation,” which in many countries is well beyond the 12th grade, Boe says.

In the 2000 PISA survey, which tested 10th-graders in 22 industrialized nations, U.S. students’ combined scores in reading, mathematics, and science fell “at about the international average,” Boe says. “The U.S. is quite comparable to other major Western nations and should have little to fear in losing out economically.”

At Freedom High School, math chair Deborah Strickler is all too aware of the comparisons being made between American math students and those around the world, but she doesn’t think that test scores can accurately measure the aptitude of all students. “There are many excellent math students who experience test freeze when you put a pencil and paper in front of them,” she says. “But give them a hands-on assignment and they can always puzzle it out.”

Strickler also believes test scores don’t reflect talent because American students are forced into a one-size-fits-all mold with lower-level math requirements. “Here, every single child must take algebra, but in Asia only those going to math and science academies take it,” she says. “As a result, we can’t cover as much as quickly because the curriculum is watered down. We’re not supposed to track students, but it seems we’ve forgotten that students’ minds develop differently.”

Correspondents from the Financial Times back up Strickler’s assertions. After observing successful secondary schools around the world, they determined that the best schools were locally controlled and emphasized individualized learning, where teaching is tailored to students’ needs. But writer Jon Boone doubts that “world-beating educational systems can be cut and pasted from one country to another.” For example, Finland’s small and homogenous population could explain why it ranked highest in overall education according to PISA.

And in developing countries, where populations far outpace opportunities, students like Shonai Someshwar and her classmates compete for scarce jobs. “Peer pressure to excel is very high—there are higher demands in India as opportunities are scarce for such a large population,” says Lochani Subramanian, who teaches science and math to Bangalore eighth-, ninth-, and tenth-graders. “It is a matter of pride for a parent to say that his child was a science student.”

Shonai’s parents are an exception. “They have never forced me to study math and science. They have always told me to study what I want to and what I like,” she says. And the same is true of Bradley Jamison’s parents. She hasn’t been pressured to pursue a math degree for job prospects. She likes math and is good at it.

Choosing to follow one’s passions is inherently American. Even though countries like India and China are racing to recreate a U.S.-style environment for innovation and ingenuity, America will always have the advantage, says Yong Zhao of Michigan State University. “With a diversity of talents among many different people,” he says, “we’ll continue to flourish.”

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Read more about what American schools are doing to improve math and science. Next page...

Singapore On the Ohio

Louisville union and administration join to get math and science right.

By Alain Jehlen

For some teachers, the giant, hissing Madagascar cockroaches might be a problem. The high-stakes test on a competing subject is definitely a problem. And school officials who tell teachers what to do instead of listening—they’re not helping, either.

Improving math and science education in the real world is tough and messy. That’s what they’re finding in Louisville, Kentucky. But it’s happening anyway.

Mike Ice explores the nature of matter with his second-graders.

“It’s all about preparing kids to live in this global, diverse, ever-changing society,” says middle school math teacher Kat Crawford. She is one of seven teachers playing a possibly unique role in science and math reform: They have been released to work full-time on a massive program to revamp K–8 math and science education, and they’re primarily responsible to their union, not the district administration. “We can stand outside of the system and bring the real questions to the table,” says Crawford, adding, “It’s not all hunky-dory and easy. At times, it’s like pulling teeth.”

Supported by a $25 million General Electric (GE) Foundation grant, the Jefferson County Teachers Association (JCTA) and the district administration together launched the ambitious project to develop world-class standards—by which they mean the approach used in the best schools of high-scoring countries like Japan and Singapore. Whether the high test scores are due to superior instruction is open to debate, but their teaching strategy, says Crawford, makes sense.

That approach includes less rote memorizing of facts forgotten right after the quiz and more getting students to think through the mysteries of numbers and the natural world. They want to stop rushing to “cover” a large number of topics and focus on teaching fewer topics to mastery. They want less lecturing, more action.

Louisville already has extraordinary educators who teach that way. Tara Hengartner skips making her seventh-grade students memorize the properties of chemical elements. Instead, she hands out cards that describe real elements with fake names, and has her students puzzle out the patterns so they come to understand the Periodic Table. Third-grade teacher Sytrina Turner gets her children up out of their seats to act out multiplication so they can feel the math. Jason Hubler, whose funky fifth-grade classroom features a collection of X-Men comic books to lure reluctant readers, teaches area and perimeter by having students calculate how much carpet and trim they’ll need to renovate a house.

Louisville wants this kind of teaching used throughout its schools, supported by rewritten standards and excellent materials that teachers don’t have to spend their weekends developing. Creating that new system in the midst of competing pressures—big classes, standardized tests that impose their own agendas, and struggling inner city families—is hard. It requires constant reality checks to be sure the plans and materials are practical. And that is why the union’s independent role is essential.

In October, for example, the district held a professional development session on the new science units, and many teachers came away angry. “My time is wasted because I really need help in social studies and math,” said one fifth-grade teacher. His reason: Kentucky gives tough, high-stakes tests in social studies and math, not science, in fifth grade. The union’s released-time teachers were there to hear the complaints and bring them to the joint task force managing the whole effort.

Teacher input also flows through many other channels, like building rep meetings and surveys. At one informal feedback session, Melissa Ronayne, who teaches science to third-graders at a Montessori magnet school, protests that the new science units bring up topics in an order that’s different from the Montessori sequence—rocks first, living creatures later. She’s gotten nowhere with the district office, but the union reps promise to go to the project steering committee with the simple idea that everybody doesn’t have to use the new units in the same order.

Teachers bring up other problems, like the lack of time provided for feeding and cleaning up after creatures such as crayfish and the Madagascar hissing cockroaches, which are shipped in for biology lessons. “I don’t have time to babysit a bunch of crayfish,” says Ronayne. Worse than taking care of them, she adds, is having to kill them afterward: “I had to stuff them into a Ziploc bag and stick them in the freezer, and they were all writhing and fighting,” she reports. “I didn’t feel real good about it.”

Fifth-grade teacher Ann Walls says some of the new assessment materials are badly written and useless to teachers. “It’s classic ‘garbage in, garbage out,’” she says. Louisville suffers from far too many disjointed tests required by different parts of the school administration, says JCTA President Brent McKim. Walls and other teachers have filed a class-action grievance to try to bring the testing regimen under control.

The math and science project got underway last year and is scheduled to go at least until 2009. (GE awarded similar grants to Cincinnati and Stamford, Connecticut, this school year.)

In Louisville, elementary and middle schools voted last spring to use the inquiry-based science modules chosen by the administration-union task force. By and large, the new materials are doing a great job of engaging students. Walk into Caryn Walker’s third-grade class and you’ll hear:

“Look! A claw!”

“This one’s a mouse leg!”

And the occasional “Ew!!”

The children are dissecting owl pellets and sound like they’ll remember this lesson for a long, long time. (For the uninitiated, owls eat their prey whole and use their gizzards to press inedible parts like bones and feathers into pellets, which they regurgitate.)

Meanwhile, the project’s math teachers are working with a commercial publisher to develop new lessons and materials. Recently, the union reps put a hold on the publisher’s professional development program because they hadn’t had a chance to check it out with teachers in other districts that are using it.

Sytrina Turner teaches multiplication by putting kids in motion.

What gave the union that power? The GE Foundation said from the start that the project steering committee must make its decisions by consensus. “Teachers are the ones delivering the message to the children, so we’re passionate about getting teachers unions and the central office to do this in collaboration,” says Kelli Wells, head of the foundation’s education programs.

But in 2009, the GE money is due to run out. Will teacher participation end with it? McKim says the union bargained the consensus decision-making and professional leave for teachers into a formal memorandum of agreement, so if the district wants to keep the innovation going, it will need to do so with its teachers.

It’s an unusual arrangement, but JCTA is an unusual union, McKim says. “Generally, unions that get involved with curriculum and instruction are not very militant, and unions that are militant don’t get involved with curriculum,” he notes. “We’re militant, and we use our militancy to push our curriculum agenda.”

That’s good for teachers and good for students, says McKim, because “success depends on teachers buying in, and that depends on teachers being full partners.” 

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