Friday, December 12, 2008

Validity of the TIMSS?

Gerald Bracey, the outspoken author who has derided politicians for decades of trying to run education like a business, has some interesting, counter-intuitive thoughts about the U.S.'s Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) performance. The TIMSS is the assessment that is quoted when critics like to point out the U.S.'s abysmal rank in comparison with the world. It is usually anonymously associated with something like "This year, the U.S. finished behind Uzbekistan."

Bracey's first claim is that it is often forgotten how many U.S. students score at the highest level. Even if the proportion is less (the U.S. had 1.5% of its students at the highest level compared to New Zealand's 4.0%), it still works out to way more students total. As in, 70,000 students total.

Bracey has a point: it only takes one student to find the cure for cancer, one student to start the next Google. Percentage is irrelevant... sheer quantity is all that matters. And the U.S. has twice as many students as the next country in this category. The U.S. will be retaining its title of world leader because of the quantity advantage.

More counter-intuitive is his claim that flies in the face of Flat-World thinking. He argues that India and China are creating more engineers, not because they are better educated, but because the jobs are too lousy for American students. Willard Daggett is having a coronary somewhere from this (and Bracey is no fan of the champion of the Rigor/Relevance framework). According to Bracey:

Low pay, lousy working conditions, little chance for advancement. American schools of engineering are dominated by foreigners because only people from third world nations can view our jobs as attractive.

Perhaps we should re-evaluate the fear-mongering of saying "Asian countries are going to take all of our jobs!"

Claim #3 is worth a closer look, however. He says:

The two Swiss-based organizations that rank nations on global competitiveness, the Institute for Management Development and the World Economic Forum, both rank the U. S. #1 and have for a number of years. The WEF examines 12 "pillars of competitiveness," only one of which is education. We do OK there, but we shine on innovation. Innovation is the only quality of competitiveness that does not show at some point diminishing returns.

How are our schools at promoting innovation? At first blush, I'd say awful. But then, the U.S. is maintaining being #1 in spite of its educational system? I don't think so. The U.S. has a long way to go, but the educational systems of other countries which produce a high level of specific content-level knowledge does not produce the innovation and creativity to which the world is an endless market. The irony here is that we are in a mad dash to make our educational system more like other country's ineffective models, not less. TIMSS scores might go up, but will that hurt us in the long run?

I was surprised with Bracey's article until the very end. His first claim that we are okay because of our high number of high achievers was very out of character for someone who focuses on how our educational system is a democratic system, not a market system. He seemed to be forgetting that America's educational system's value is in how it is equitable for all. Need not fear, he reaches that point by saying how disturbing it is that low income students continue to lag behind.

As usual in these comparisons, Americans in low-poverty schools look very good, even in mathematics. They would be ranked third in the 4th grade (among 36 nations) 6th in the 8th grade (among 47 nations). This is important because while other developed nations have poor children, the U. S. has a much higher proportion and a much weaker safety net. When UNICEF studied poverty in 22 wealthy nations, the U. S. ranked 21st.

This is the claim that I find most important; poverty remains the elephant in the room with all the talk of reform. Bracey's opinionated, yes. But he does give many poignant talking points to make a discussion out of the constant barrage of America's test scores.

No comments: