TIMSS, the New Basics, and the Schools We Need

A Critique of Two Widely Cited Sources on Educational Decline

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In Final Exam: A Study of the Perpetual Scrutiny of American Schools, I reviewed the tendency, especially strong since the end of World War II, for critics to think the worst about our schools, often while lionizing the educational systems of other nations. Two books that have received much attention since their publication continue this trend: Teaching the New Basics, by Richard Murnane and Frank Levy, and The Schools We Need: And Why We Don't Have Them, by E. D. Hirsch Jr. Messrs. Murnane, Levy, and Hirsch have been cited in numerous other books not focused entirely on education, such as America in Black and White, by Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom, and Mr. Hirsch's book was the subject of a review of unprecedented length in the November 1997 Educational Researcher. Both books make strong claims about the inadequacies of American schools and their graduates. Yet, the Educational Researcher review of Mr. Hirsch's book, while highly critical, supplies no empirical data to confront these arguments, and the Thernstroms are uncritically accepting of both tomes.

It is of some interest, then, to examine these books' judgments in view of recent data from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study and other international comparisons. The claims fade in the light of actual data.

Mr. Murnane and Mr. Levy start from their observation that the wage gap between high school graduates and people with college degrees became a chasm over the last 20-odd years. One solution is President Clinton's: Send everyone to college. Mr. Murnane and Mr. Levy contend that a better alternative is to make the high school diploma more meaningful to employers by teaching "the new basics" (only two of which, working in groups and solving semistructured problems, are new; the rest have all been proposed before or are traditional).

In their view, a high school properly teaching the new basics would graduate students from 12th grade who can perform mathematics at the 9th grade level. Performing math at the 9th grade level, according to Messrs. Murnane and Levy, means "the ability to manipulate fractions and decimals and to interpret line graphs and bar graphs." That's it.

Most school boards, I imagine, would reject such a goal as too modest, and it sure doesn't seem to fit the calls for high standards from Mr. Clinton, the American Federation of Teachers, and various other reformers. Still, when it comes to these skills, while the two authors acknowledge that schools have gotten a little bit better over the last 30 years, they contend that "many high school graduates don't have them." In a debate with Frank Levy sponsored by the Massachusetts-based nonprofit group Jobs for the Future, I presented graphic and decimal items from TIMSS and asked if they were what he and Mr. Murnane had in mind. He affirmed that they were.

In TIMSS overall, American students were slightly below average at the 8th grade level, getting 53 percent of the items right, compared with an international average of 55 percent for all 41 countries. At the 4th grade level, American students finished slight-ly above average, getting 63 percent of the items correct, compared with an international average of 59 percent for all 26 participating countries. On fractions, American 4th graders scored 51 percent correct, compared with an international average of 49 percent. Eighth graders aced 59 percent of fraction items, one percentage point above the international average of 58 percent. So, overall, American students outperformed the average student abroad in this area of new basics.

It may be of interest to look at the performance on the graphic and decimal test items I presented at this meeting that were specifically related to the new basics. One included a bar graph showing how many milk cartons were sold on each of five week days. Students were required first to specify how many cartons of milk were sold on Monday; then, in the second part, to calculate the number sold for the whole week. Fully 90 percent of American 4th graders were able to answer the first part of this item correctly, and 57 percent got the second part right. The international averages for these items were 75 percent and 37 percent, respectively. On the first part of the question, the U.S. percentage was exceeded by five of the 26 countries participating; on the second part by only two.

On the second item, which involved fractions, a square was shown, subdivided into nine equal squares. Five of the nine smaller squares were shaded. The question asked for the fraction that represented the shaded squares' relation to the whole. Eighty percent of American 4th graders responded correctly; the international average was 61 percent, and only four of the 26 countries had higher percentages of students getting the right answer.

My third item was an 8th grade TIMSS item, somewhat more complicated than those asked at the 4th grade level. It involved a line graph representing the distance a typical car, traveling at different speeds, would travel before coming to a stop after the brakes were applied. The question asked how fast a car would have been going if it had come to a stop at a given distance after the brakes were applied. Seventy-two percent of American students responded to this item correctly. No international average was calculated, but the range of correct responses varied from 17 percent in South Africa to 82 percent in Flemish-speaking Belgium. Only one Asian nation (Japan) exceeded the U.S. percentage, with a 75 percent correct response rate.

These results represent only a few of the total, of course, but others in the TIMSS reports show similar outcomes. If they are representative, American students are apparently coping with "the new basics" and holding their own or better against peers in other countries.

It is theoretically possible, of course, that what we have here is a global crisis in "the new basics," but that doesn't seem to be what critics of U.S. schools are contending (although TheToronto Globe and The Washington Post have both recently implied that, if Canadian and American students are as good on tests as anyone else, the world is in trouble). One must look at these 4th grade and 8th grade results, though, and recall that Messrs. Murnane and Levy contend that "many" high school graduates don't have skills in these areas. One must then wonder what they mean by "many." Or, one must speculate that kids get dumber in math as they progress through the secondary school years.

In The Schools We Need, Mr. Hirsch gives full throttle to the thesis he has promulgated for the last 15 years, namely, that for the last 80 years or so, American educators have been in thrall to a failed, anti-knowledge theory of education advanced by Herbart, Rousseau, and Pestalozzi in their modern, romantic-progressive guises of John Dewey and his ilk, especially William Kilpatrick. The "wrong-headed romantic" theory emphasizes collaborative learning, critical thinking, real-world problems, and the present over the past.

Mr. Hirsch likens us educators to Eastern European thinkers who blindly chased after the false theory of socialism for roughly the same period of time--no other theory is even thinkable. Those of us who, in public schools--more recently than 80 years ago--memorized phyla, the ablative and other Latin cases, irregular French verbs, the battles of Napoleon, Charlemagne, Lee, Grant, and Patton (among others), Euclid's postulates, the formula for solving quadratic equations, simple machines, Newton's laws, and the periodic table will find this contention ... surprising.

Mr. Hirsch contrasts the anti-knowledge notions served up in this country to those purveyed by the centralized curricula of other nations, especially Switzerland. There is something about Switzerland, even more than Japan, that has had American critics of U.S. schools swooning for many years. As far back as the 1950s, Adm. Hyman G. Rickover was gushing over Swiss schools and calling for us to emulate them in order to generate sufficient mathematicians, scientists, and engineers to win the space and weapons races against the Soviets.

Mr. Hirsch, for his part, has this to say: "Switzerland has one of the most detailed and demanding core curriculums in the world, with each canton specifying in detail the minimum knowledge and skill that each child shall achieve in each grade, and an accountability system that ensures the attainment of those universal standards. ... Each child therefore receives a highly coherent, carefully monitored sequence of early learnings. ... "

If, indeed, the Swiss system "ensures" such outcomes, then one would expect Switzerland, of all nations, to "slam-dunk American students," to borrow one of George Bush's colorful and imprecise images.

It doesn't work out that way. In the virtually invisible 1992 study by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, How in the World Do Students Read?, American students start out ahead, but by age 14, it's a dead heat between the two countries.

Swiss students do better in TIMSS 8th grade math, getting 9 percent more items right (Switzerland did not participate in the 4th grade testing). American students, apparently unaware that they are receiving an inferior education when compared with their Swiss peers, score slightly higher in science.

Is 'average' a problem? The media certainly think so. But 'average' is a statistic, 'mediocre' a judgment.

There is more. At a February 1997 TIMSS conference, analyses of videotapes of math instruction in the United States characterized American teachers as concentrating on the very facts Mr. Hirsch claims they ignore, while Japanese teachers strove for conceptual understanding. Mr. Hirsch seems to think that the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics standards might already be in place. TIMSS analysts concluded that they are--in most other countries, but not here.

Finally, there are results from the First International Adult Literacy Survey, or FIALS. Since adults are involved, one cannot say that we are seeing the direct outcomes of schooling ("adults" was defined as people between the ages of 16 and 65). Still, as FIALS notes, literacy development is a lifelong process. If Swiss schools are preparing students the way Mr. Hirsch contends, we might expect Swiss adults to show an ever greater advantage as Americans degenerate into Joe and Josie Sixpack and slump in front of the TV. They don't. Two percentage points more of the American adults scored at the lowest level (20.7 percent vs. 18.5 percent for the Swiss), but many more Americans scored at the top two levels (21.1 percent vs. 9.5 percent for the Swiss).

What are we to make of these results? Ignoring the global crisis in "new basics" for the moment, it is true that American students' TIMSS scores are both close to the international average. Is average a problem? The media certainly think so. When the results were released, only The New York Times and Education Week did not translate average into "mediocre." But average is a statistic, mediocre a judgment. One major overlooked fact of the TIMSS results, though, is that almost everyone is "mediocre." There are 20 countries within 6 percentage points of the U.S. score in 8th grade math, fully 26 within 6 percentage points in science.

One could hope, but not very hard, that the various data from international studies would lead people to conclude that most developed nations are not very different from each other. It is not likely to happen.

In his 1989 book Popular Education and Its Discontents, the education historian Lawrence Cremin observed that "the popularization of American schools and colleges since the end of World War II has been nothing short of phenomenal, involving an unprecedented broadening of access, an unprecedented diversification of curricula, and an unprecedented extension of public control. ... Yet this expansion of schooling seemed to bring with it a pervasive sense of failure. The question would have to be, why?" It's still the question.

And, as stated, unlikely to go away. As Mr. Cremin wrote in the same book, "Just about the time Adam said to Eve that they were living in an age of transition, the serpent doubtless issued the first complaint that academic standards were beginning to decline." Viewed with the data available, though, none of the complaints--neither those of the serpent, nor those of Messrs. Hirsch, Murnane, and Levy--appears very substantial.

Vol. 17, Issue 23, Pages 36, 38

Published in Print: February 18, 1998, as TIMSS, the New Basics, and the Schools We Need
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