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Education Statistics Quarterly
Vol 3, Issue 1, Featured Topic: Third International Mathematics and Science Study-Repeat
Invited Commentary: Lessons From the Third International Mathematics and Science Study-Repeat
By: Margaret B. Cozzens, Vice President and Chief Academic Officer, Colorado Institute of Technology, and Susan H. Fuhrman, Dean, Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania (Co-Chairs of the U.S. TIMSS–R Technical Review Panel)
 
This commentary represents the opinions of the authors and does not necessarily reflect the views of the National Center for Education Statistics.
 
 

Pursuing Excellence: Comparisons of International Eighth-Grade Mathematics and Science Achievement From a U.S. Perspective: 1995 and 1999 (Gonzales et al. 2000) is a welcome addition to our growing knowledge base about mathematics and science performance and education in the United States. This report presents results from the second installment of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS)-the TIMSS–Repeat (TIMSS–R). TIMSS–R is the most comprehensive international comparative study of its kind, assessing eighth-grade students in 38 countries around the world in mathematics and science and collecting background information on students, schools, teachers, and curricula 4 years after its widely cited predecessor, TIMSS.

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In a nutshell, what TIMSS–R tells us is that U.S. eighth-graders are about average in mathematics and science compared to students in other countries. For example, compared to students in the five other G-8 countries that participated in the study,* U.S. students performed below students in Japan and Canada, while testing on a par with students in England and the Russian Federation (in one or the other subject) and above those in Italy. The U.S. results have not changed significantly since the first TIMSS study took place in 1995. We were in the middle then, too, at the middle grades.

Although perhaps we may have to wait a bit longer to see the effects of education reform reflected as statistically significant improvements in achievement in international studies, there are several hopeful lessons or messages from TIMSS–R that we can take away now. Primary among these lessons is that children learn what they are taught. According to the TIMSS–R findings, our students tend to perform better in the content areas that get the most attention in the curriculum. In mathematics, the content areas that are taught with the most frequency to the most students are the three areas in which U.S. students outperformed their international peers: fractions and number sense; data representation, analysis, and probability; and algebra. On the other hand, our students performed only at the international average in geometry and measurement, the two content areas that the study shows are emphasized the least. In many ways, this is very good news for our teachers and our education system. Children are, in fact, learning what they are being taught. However, these results also serve as a reminder that curriculum matters a great deal. We need to carefully consider the sequence and coherence of what we teach and to find ways to incorporate the more rigorous topics, currently underrepresented, into our classroom instruction.

Two other hopeful lessons from TIMSS–R relate to student differences and the exploration of whether any one group of students systematically outperforms another group of students. As in TIMSS 4 years ago and the more recent NAEP trend report (Campbell et al. 2000), there was no achievement gap evident between U.S. boys and girls in mathematics in the eighth grade. This is a positive finding. However, TIMSS–R did find an achievement gap favoring boys in science in the United States; thus, important questions are raised about why U.S. Students consistently perform similarly in mathematics but not in science and about what factors cause the gender gap in science. Another hopeful finding is that, between TIMSS and TIMSS–R, black students’ performance improved significantly in mathematics. Without making light of this important finding, we also need to remember, however, that it is not enough for any one racial or ethnic group to better itself. Differences between the groups must also cease to be significant, reflecting increasing equity in students’ opportunities to learn and access to qualified teachers and rigorous curriculum. TIMSS-R shows that the gap between black students and white students has narrowed but still exists.

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In addition to important insights into achievement, TIMSS–R also provides information on what occurs in eighth-grade mathematics and science classrooms around the country-information such as how time is spent in the classroom and what qualifications teachers bring to the classroom. We take away several important messages and lessons from these data, as well. Although further analyses are needed about the relationship of these variables to achievement, their importance, even as descriptors, cannot be overstated. They provide important clues about the many, simultaneous factors that can enable quality learning in U.S. schools.

One of the indications from TIMSS–R is that more time could be spent in U.S. classrooms on instruction time that the study suggests is currently being spent on other activities. For instance, TIMSS–R results show that U.S. Students spend significantly more time in class on homework than does the average student in the study. Our eighth-graders are much more likely than their international peers to discuss their mathematics homework in class and to begin their homework assignments as part of their regular class work. The point here is not that students are getting too much or too little homework—the relationship between the time students spend doing homework and their achievement is debatable, after all. The point is that, in the United States, we give up more classroom time to activities that are intended for individual practice than nearly every other nation that participated in the study. By moving homework back into the home, we can reclaim precious minutes for active instruction.

Another lesson for instructional practice may be in the finding that the practices of demonstrating how to do mathematics problems and of setting students to work on worksheets and textbook exercises are much more common in the United States than in other countries. In other countries, students are more likely to work on project-oriented work of the type recommended by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in their well-known 1991 standards for mathematics teaching (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics 1991). One of the concerns among people working in education today is that teaching styles in the United States still tend to focus on demonstration of ideas and individual work rather than on facilitation of learning and collaboration among students. These data suggest that we still have progress to make in this area. We expect that the results from the TIMSS-R Videotape Classroom Study of teaching practices in the United States and six other countries will shed some additional light on this issue.

TIMSS–R also provides a status report on the need for a competent, caring, and content-knowledgeable teacher in every classroom. While we have many competent and caring teachers in the United States, TIMSS-R data show that we are comparatively lacking in content-knowledgeable teachers. U.S. Students are less likely than their peers to have teachers who have degrees in the subject areas they teach. For instance, the TIMSS–R results show that almost three-quarters of students in other countries have mathematics teachers with a degree in mathematics, compared to less than half of students in the United States. Instead, U.S. Students are much more likely to have mathematics teachers with a general education degree. Although the picture is slightly better in science, U.S. Students still are more likely than their international peers to be taught by teachers with a general education degree and far less likely to have a teacher with a degree in physics. While the education community focuses on establishing and supporting high academic standards for all students, it must also encourage and provide the necessary supports for teachers to achieve those same high standards. Students deserve teachers who have a deep and conceptual understanding of specific content areas, which they are, in turn, able to share with students in the classes they teach.

Finally, at the same time that TIMSS–R suggests (or, rather, reminds us of) the importance of qualified teachers, it also shows us that U.S. teachers have few opportunities for professional interaction. According to the results, U.S. eighth-graders have mathematics and science teachers who spend, on average, only one class period per year observing another teacher’s practice and only one or two periods being observed. Reform literature has long emphasized that teachers need regular opportunities to work with and learn from one another in meaningful ways. One hopeful finding from TIMSS–R is that U.S. science teachers with fewer than 5 years of teaching experience reported more opportunities, approximately three per year, to observe other teachers. This is a step in the right direction.

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One final set of findings from TIMSS–R merits a mention in our commentary and, perhaps, further exploration in secondary analyses. Although U.S. Students did not show significant improvement in their mathematics or science performance between TIMSS and TIMSS–R, Canadian students did—in both subjects. Since the Canadian education community faces some of the same issues that we do-working within a large, federal system that supports local control and with increasingly diverse and needy student populations-there may be lessons to learn from our neighbors to the north about what factors may have accounted for their demonstrated increases. Although there clearly is no “silver bullet” or magic formula that can be picked up and copied, even from a country with which we have some things in common, it would be useful to explore the Canadian situation in more depth.

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As the new administration continues to take shape, education clearly has emerged as a key issue, one that saw the first attention and action from our new President. In addition to the President’s “Leave No Child Behind” plan, two other legislative proposals for the reauthorization and funding of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act have been put forth. Collectively, these plans, with varying levels of emphasis, address the need for early literacy, accountability in schools, and strategies for helping schools at risk of failing their students. At a time when our lawmakers are focused on selecting and on allocating funds for such programs and strategies, TIMSS–R reminds us that curriculum, instruction, and teacher preparation are crucial pieces of this picture—inseparable from and as worthy of immediate attention as any other aspect of education reform. Without getting more content-trained teachers into the classroom; without providing teachers with opportunities to interact with their colleagues to improve their pedagogical skills and perceptions of themselves as a part of a professional community; without examining what and why we teach—we will not be able to reduce existing educational disparities and meet the needs of our students who, when given the opportunity, can learn as well as any other students.

In the end, TIMSS–R is a means to an end. If we choose to use this study as the resource that it is, we can begin to make the kinds of changes necessary for our children to reach standards of achievement as high as any in the world. Going back to that first lesson from TIMSS–R and following our children’s example, we, the American education community, should learn what we have been taught.

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Footnote

*The Group of Eight (G-8) countries are recognized as the world’s major industrialized countries. All the G-8 countries except France and Germany participated in TIMSS–R.

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Campbell, J.R., Hombo, C.M., and Mazzeo, J. (2000). NAEP 1999 Trends in Academic Progress: Three Decades of Student Performance (NCES 2000–469). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Gonzales, P., Calsyn, C., Jocelyn, L., Mak, K., Kastberg, D., Arafeh, S., Williams, T., and Tsen, W. (2000). Pursuing Excellence: Comparisons of International Eighth-Grade Mathematics and Science Achievement From a U.S. Perspective: 1995 and 1999 (NCES 2001–028). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Commission on Teaching Standards for School Mathematics. (1991). Professional Standards for Teaching Mathematics. Reston, VA: Author.

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