THE BLOG
09/06/2013 01:37 pm ET | Updated Nov 06, 2013

If Massachusetts was a Country

The self-proclaimed educational "reform" movement is busy packaging Common Core standards with high-stakes assessment, scripted curriculum, packaged test prep, the de-professionalization of teachers, and the privatization of school support services. A big part of their argument is that U.S. students perform poorly on international exams when compared to children from other countries. In a recent book by Amanda Ripley, The Smartest Kids in the World, she claimed that she found true educational excellence in Finland, South Korea, and Poland.

But wait a minute!

According to a Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) report on the math and science knowledge and skills of fourth and eighth graders around the world, if the state of Massachusetts were a country, its eighth graders would rank second in the world in science, behind only Singapore, and sixth in mathematics. Not only that, but according to the TIMSS report North Carolina was a top scorer on the fourth grade math exam, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Indiana were top scorers on the eighth grade math exam, Massachusetts and Colorado were high scorers on the eighth grade science exam, and the United States as a whole scored above the international average, 10th in science and 9th in math. In Massachusetts 8th graders made significant gains in math and science performance on TIMSS between 1999 and 2007, starting before Bush era No Child Left Behind, the Obama-Duncan Race to the Top, the national Common Core Standards, and before the high-states testing craze.

According to The New York Times, what makes science education in Massachusetts exceptional is its commitment, not to test prep, but to intensive hands-on instruction. It described fifth graders at Donald E. Ross Elementary School learning about fulcrums by using a ruler set up like a seesaw and balancing weights at both ends and seventh graders in a science class working in small groups "to brainstorm how a box of items -- a plastic jar, beaker, water, and a mix of sand, soil, clay and pebbles -- could help answer a question posed by the teacher: How do sediments carried in water get deposited? They devised small experiments and wrote down their observations, and at the end of class each group presented its findings." These class had no computer generated instruction; no test prep booklets; no scripted lectures or videos; just good, old-fashioned, science experiments that encourage students to think about their world and test their ideas.

In addition, it appears that in Massachusetts, educational reform does not mean vouchers for private schools, closing poorly performing schools, eliminating tenure for teachers, merit pay, and replacing public schools with privately operated charters, although students are expected to pass competency tests to graduate from high school. In math, teachers are treated like professional educators and given the freedom to devise and improvise instruction.

I like the Massachusetts way of teaching math and science!

For our family's Rosh Hashanah dinner, my eight-year old grandchildren Sadia and Gideon helped me bake the ceremonial bread known as challah. They are entering fourth grade this September so we did some math and science review while we baked. Our recipe was for two loaves, but we only wanted to make one, so they had to halve all the ingredients. Eight cups of flour easily became four cups, but figuring out half of the fraction ½ a cup of sugar took a little work. The other fun thing about baking is change of states. The solid stick of margarine became a liquid in the microwave when we added energy. The powdery flour became a clay-like mass when we added water. But most impressively, once the yeast was revived with the addition of sugar and warm water it released a gas and our dough rose to double in size. We also worked in some family culture and social studies. Following traditional Jewish dietary rules, we used margarine instead of butter in the challah because margarine can be used with either meat or dairy while butter can only be used with dairy meals. Instead of using a loaf pan or braiding the dough, for Rosh Hashanah we baked a circular bread which represents the coming around of the new year and the circle of life and seasons, which I guess is a little bit of science as well.

My point is that this is what teaching should look like in elementary school instead of constant test prep, answering questions about reading passages divorced from context or life, and mechanically calculating meaningless fractions.

By the way, Amanda Ripley, author of The Smartest Kids in the World who promotes education in Finland, Poland, and South Korea is an Emerson Fellow at the New America Foundation. According to its website, major funders of the New America foundation include Bill and Melinda Gates, Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and a foundation started by the CEO of Google, all major promoters of self-proclaimed "school reform." Other funders include the Peterson Foundation, the Bradley Foundation, and Wal-Mart, who promote what they call free market solutions to education, which really means privatization and running schools to profit business interests.