Eduflack has been a broken record when it comes to the need to equip all students with the knowledge and skills they need to achieve in the 21st century. We know all kids will need higher-level math, science, and technology skills if they are to hold good jobs a year or a decade from now. And we’ve put the impetus on our K-12 system to provide the instruction relevant to today’s economy and to tomorrow’s opportunities.
In many states across the nation, specific STEM (science-tech-engineering-math) programs are just getting off the ground. Forward-minded states are laying the necessary frameworks to establish statewide STEM education strategies, building real, relevant instructional programs for our K-12 and higher education systems. But from today’s data, we clearly aren’t moving fast enough.
Today, NCES released “Highlights from TIMSS: 2007,” revealing the data of U.S. student achievement in math and the sciences. The lowlights:
* Only 10 percent of fourth graders and 6 percent of eighth graders scored at or above the advanced international benchmark for math. Our fourth graders were outperformed by fourth graders in such educational leadership nations such as Kazakhstan and the Russian Federation. Our eighth graders couldn’t measure up to heavyweights such as Russia and Hungary.
* The average science score for both fourth and eighth graders hasn’t increased since 1995.
* Of the 35 countries participating in TIMSS, our eighth graders were outperformed by seven countries in math and six in science.
What does it all mean? When it comes to math and science performance, the United States is quickly becoming a textbook case for mediocrity. There was a time when countries like Kazakhstan and Hungary aspired to just get closer to us, now they are outperforming us. There was a time when we offered the gold standard in science and math education, now we are fortunate to be competing in the top 25 percent.
It is no surprise that NCES and the U.S. Department of Education are trying to put a positive face on this disappointing data. At a time when we promised every student would be math and science proficient within the decade, we are heaping praise on statistically insignificant gains on math scores (against ourselves from 12 years previous) and merely holding our own on science. We’re treading water, and we’re doing a damned fine job at it!
It’s nice to live in such a world, but the data just doesn’t live up to the real world our kids are facing. We know we need dramatic increases in math and science achievement, but the numbers just don’t show it. We know our kids need stronger math and science ability, but they just can’t demonstrate it. We know STEM is the path to success, yet we are only slowly moving toward its reality.
How do we learn from the TIMSS data? We need to focus on five key ideas:
* Ensuring that all schools, particularly those in at-risk communities, have qualified, effective math, science, and technology teachers … and those teachers have the instructional materials and professional development they need to succeed
* Rapidly ramp up statewide STEM initiatives that affect all students, in grades kindergarten through high school, looking at Minnesota, Colorado, and Pennsylvania as models
* Better connecting K-12 and higher education, tapping into quality instruction, quality course offerings, and long-term pathways of learning
* Exploring more ways to get mid-careers in the classroom, moving those from the science professions into science instruction (particularly in the middle and secondary grades)
* Providing all classrooms with the instructional materials, technology, and access they need to effectively learn, whether it be through textbooks, virtual instruction, internships, and real-life engagements.
The task before us is whether we take these TIMSS results, act on them, and build from them or whether we simply put this report on a shelf and move on to the next issue. For the sake today’s students, we desperately need to focus on the former. Unfortunately, we historically have spent too much time on the latter.
These results should be a call to arms for the education community. We shouldn’t be satisfied with the outcomes, and we shouldn’t settle for mediocrity. We have a lot of work to do if we are to pass by those kids from Hungary and Kazakhstan and start competing with the likes of Hong Kong and Japan.