A World-Class Education Eludes Many in the U.S.

By David J. Hoff — April 11, 2001 8 min read
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“It’s official,” a suburban Chicago school district proclaimed last week. “Naperville Community Unit School District 203 is the best school district in the world.”

About 30 miles away, in downtown Chicago, the news was sobering, however. Students from the city’s 432,000-student school system ranked near the bottom on the same international study, which compared the math and science achievement of selected U.S. states, regions, and districts with the standings for 38 countries.

The study “provides evidence that some schools in the United States are among the best in the world, but that a world-class education is not available to all children,” said Michael O. Martin, a co-director of the International Study Center at Boston College. The center conducted the study for the U.S. Department of Education and the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, based in Amsterdam.

“We have islands of excellence, but islands of excellence is not what we seek,” added Secretary of Education Rod Paige.

For the Third International Mathematics and Science Study—Repeat, or TIMSS-R, 13 states, nine school districts, and five regional consortia within the United States gave the exams to a representative sample of students in 1999. About 2,000 students were tested in every state, and 1,000 students in each district or region. All the participants paid to join the study as a way to compare their student performance, curricula, and teacher quality against international standards.

According to overall results released last year, U.S. 8th graders ranked slightly above the international average on the 38-nation study of the math and science knowledge of students at that grade level. That was lower than the same cohort of students who took the 4th grade TIMSS test four years earlier. (“U.S. Students’ Scores Drop By 8th Grade,” Dec. 13, 2000.) In a breakdown of results released last week, all the participating states exceeded the international average, but none came close to Singapore, Korea, and Japan—the countries that ranked at the top of the scale in both subjects.

Michigan topped the other 12 participating states in both math and science achievement. Oregon and Indiana scored near the top of the states in both subjects. Texas scored well in math, but near the bottom of the states in science. No state scored statistically higher or lower than the U.S. average.

“They are microcosms of the United States as a whole,” William H. Schmidt, a professor of education at Michigan State University in East Lansing, said of the states that took part in the study. He led a project that compared the curricula of all the countries that participated in the first round of TIMSS in 1995.

Disparities Within

But the local results show a wide range of performance within states, Mr. Schmidt added.

The 18,900- student Naperville district, due west of Chicago, scored at about the same place as the top-scoring countries in both subjects. The First in the World Consortium, a group of suburban Chicago districts, also ranked near the top, as did the Academy School District No. 20 in Colorado Springs, Colo., and the Michigan Invitational Group in suburban Detroit. The districts are characterized by low poverty and relatively low enrollments of minority students.

The 140,500-student Montgomery County, Md., district in suburban Washington also ranked near the top in mathematics, but toward the middle of the pack in science. Though some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the United States are in the county, half its school district’s enrollment is made up of minority students, and about one-fourth of its students live in poverty.

On the other hand, the school districts in Chicago, Miami-Dade County, Rochester, N.Y., and Jersey City, N.J., all scored at or near the bottom—in the same range as such countries as Chile, the Philippines, Morocco, and South Africa.

All the low-performing districts have high levels of poverty and minority enrollment.

The TIMSS-R results show that 90 percent of the students in the high-achieving areas scored above the international average, while only 30 percent of the students in the low-performing districts reached that level, according to Gordon M. Ambach, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

The results “suggest that we have a lot of work to do,” said Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools, an association of large urban districts, who spoke at the news conference here where the report was released last week.

To-Do List

Education research has established a link between students’ economic and racial backgrounds and their school performance.

But the TIMSS-R research, despite the disappointing results for districts with large numbers of poor and minority students, suggests that a school can have a significant impact on performance.

“It seems to be tightly tied to what happens in schools,” Mr. Schmidt said.

If low-performing school districts are to improve, they need to make an all-out effort, according to Ina V.S. Mullis, who was the other co-director of the project with Mr. Martin at the Boston College research center. Those districts must strengthen their curricula, improve the content knowledge and skills of teachers, and provide such necessary resources as textbooks and technology if their students are going to achieve at high levels, she said.

“Reform has to be accomplished on a systemic basis,” Ms. Mullis said. “It takes a concerted effort on all fronts.”

The First in the World Consortium, which tested its students in 1995 as well as 1999, improved its standing in mathematics in part by increasing the number of 8th graders taking algebra, according to Linda G. Marks, the president of the group and the superintendent of the 570-student Golf School District 67 in Morton Grove, Ill.

“That in itself shows that we’ve really raised expectations, and the interesting thing is, kids can do it,” she said.

Throughout the consortium, 35 percent of 8th graders take algebra. That compares with only 2 percent in Chicago, 5 percent in Jersey City, and 5 percent in Rochester, according to the mathematics report released last week.

For low-achieving districts to get 8th graders into algebra, however, is not a simple process. The First in the World districts, for example, re- evaluate their math curricula and teacher skills starting as early as the kindergarten level, said Paul L. Kimmelman, the consortium’s president when he was the superintendent of the West Northfield district.

“If TIMSS has told us anything, it’s that there’s definitely a need to look at how you can help teachers,” said Mr. Kimmelman, who is now a special adviser to the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, a federally financed research center.


The urban districts that participated in the survey—involvement that was purely voluntary—took a risk that they would show poorly, and they deserve praise for taking part, Secretary Paige said.

When the public relations issue over their poor performance fades, Mr. Kimmelman said, those districts, along with the other participants, will get two 400-page reports filled with findings that will help them improve their schools.

The TIMMS-R research also included teacher and student surveys about what is taught, how it’s taught, and how class time is spent.

For example, officials in Florida’s Miami-Dade district said in a statement last week that the 361,000- student system would overhaul its math and science curricula to end repetitive sections and put the study of those subjects on a par with international standards. Administrators and teachers there also will focus on ways to teach the subjects to Cuban and Haitian immigrants who are not fluent in English.

Chicago officials said in a statement that they were “encouraged” by the results, “despite the many obstacles that students face.”

Moreover, the statement said, the survey tested 8th graders from two years ago who did not have to meet the standards that are now in place.

Glenn W. “Max” McGee, the state superintendent in Illinois, said Chicago chose to participate because the city’s schools chief and its mayor “are serious that all students can learn, that their students can achieve high international standards.” Chicago also took part, he said, to assess where the district stands nationally and internationally and to help determine where problems lie.

Urban districts need to know that simply changing their expectations of their students also will help, said Mr. Schmidt, the Michigan State researcher.

“One of the problems is,” he said, “there’s an unevenness of the expectations of what kids can do. The only thing they can do is raise the expectations of their kids.”

State Lessons

State officials say the results of the study will help them sort out the areas in which their schools have succeeded, and where they can improve instruction.

Illinois, for example, can learn from the widest of spectrums—the high-scoring Naperville and the low-scoring Chicago. The state hopes to copy Naperville’s success by distributing videotapes of its teaching methods, student activities, and classroom materials, according to Mr. McGee. It’s “a big job,” he said, “but we’re committed to doing that.”

On the other hand, the study confirms that low-income, urban districts like Chicago need help, Mr. McGee said.

Helping students from poor families and closing the achievement gap will now become the priority of the state education department, the Illinois schools chief said.

Michigan, which scored highest among the states, will analyze its state scores to figure out how to help teachers maximize their use of curriculum materials, said Charles Allan, a mathematics education consultant to the Michigan education department.

“Part of the issue is that many of us were taught ways that didn’t allow us to use these materials as they’re designed,” he said.

Even though Connecticut performed slightly better than the U.S. average, Thomas Murphy, a spokesman for the state education department, said the state found that its schools may be teaching some mathematics and science skills later than their international competitors. “We want to look at our sequencing and what was on the exam,” he said, “and determine whether we’re addressing those skills early enough.”

James Friedebach, the director of assessment for the Missouri education department, said TIMSS-R “tended to verify ... that Missouri generally performs better than average,” but the state will still examine its curricula and teaching practices to find ways to improve.

Editorial Assistant Vanessa Dea contributed to this report.

A version of this article appeared in the April 11, 2001 edition of Education Week as A World-Class Education Eludes Many in the U.S.


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