Asian tigers roar in latest international test results; will the U.S. respond?

12/05/2016 01:16 pm ET

The latest international results comparing Grade 4 and Grade 8 students in mathematics and science are in, and, once again, the Asian tigers (China, Korea, Japan, and Singapore) are roaring, significantly leading major first-world nations such as the United States, England and Australia.

TIMSS results

The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) is an international test to compare the achievement of fourth and eighth grade students in mathematics and science. It has been administered every four years since 1995, thus providing a 20-year period for study of educational trends around the world.

In November 2016, results for the latest test (taken in 2015) became available. Below is a condensed summary of the test results for 8th grade students, ranked by average math score. For full details, see this report, available from the U.S. National Center for Education Statistics.

Educational system Average math Average science
Singapore 621 597
Republic of Korea 606 556
China Taipei 599 569
China Hong Kong 594 546
Japan 586 571
Russian Federation 538 544
Canada 527 526
Ireland 523 530
United States 518 530
England 518 537
Hungary 514 527
Norway 512 509
Australia 505 512
Sweden 501 522
Italy 494 499
New Zealand 493 513

U.S. performance

Once again, much to the consternation of educational leaders in the United States, its performance in mathematics and science is only so-so, and progress has been modest at best. From 2011 to 2015, math scores increased from 509 to 518, while science scores increased from 525 to 530 -- increases that while certainly welcome are, statistically speaking, barely significant. This is in spite of decades of hand-wringing and political battles.

Matt Larson, president of the U.S. National Council of Teachers of Mathematics said that while the slight progress is heartening, "Certainly we have much more work to do and achievement is not as high as we would like to have it."

Needless to say, this mediocre performance is hardly in keeping with a nation that, arguably more than any other on Earth, has hitched itself to the star of modern science and technology. High-tech manufacturing and other knowledge-intensive services now account for 40% of the U.S. gross domestic product, and directly employ approximately seven million persons (and indirectly employ many more). Tech giants such as Apple, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, IBM and Tesla are household names worldwide. The U.S. scientific research establishment, an extensive network of government laboratories, universities and industrial research organizations, is second to none.

Yet increasingly U.S. leadership in both science and technology is being challenged by the Asian tigers, as well as ambitious competitors in Europe, the Middle East, Australia and elsewhere. China now rates second in worldwide research and development, accounting for 20% of global R&D production, compared with 27% for the U.S. Even more startling is the fact that between 2003 and 2013, China increased its R&D investments by an average of 19.5% per year.

Other reactions

Many other first-world nations are similarly disappointed, and are vowing to try harder. Nick Gibb, U.K. school standards minister, responded, "We know there is more to do to narrow the attainment gap and that’s why this year alone we have invested £2.5billion through the Pupil Premium to tackle education inequality."

The latest Australian scores show essentially no improvement in student achievement since 1995. Sue Thompson, director of the Australian Council for Educational Research, lamented the fact that Australian schools continue to fall behind, and that disparities between schools continues to exacerbate the shortfall of scores among disadvantaged students.

What are Singapore and Finland doing right?

So what are school systems such as Singapore and Finland doing right? To begin with, teachers are better trained. According to the National Center on Education and the Economy, Singapore teachers are recruited from the top tier of the graduating class. On average, only one out of eight applicants for admission to teacher education programs is accepted, and only after a relatively grueling application process. For example, prospective teachers must have taken Singapore's A-level exams, the most challenging of all exams. Teacher salaries are competitive with other college-educated professions.

Although 8th grade TIMSS scores are not available for Finland, that nation ranks seventh worldwide in 4th grade scores, behind only the Asian tigers and Russia, and ahead of any other nation in Western Europe. Again, the Finland educational system is highly selective --- it is often more difficult being accepted into a teacher education program than into law or medicine. What's more, since 1970 all teachers must have at least a master's degree. Teachers typically spend four hours per day in the classroom, and spend two hours per week on professional development.

Future shock

Anyone saying that they "know" how to fix the educational system, either in the U.S. or in Europe or other nations, is selling bogus goods. Many different "experiments" have been tried, often with disappointing results. The measures that do seem to bear some fruit, such as more rigorous teacher training and more focused efforts for low-income students, all require significant structural changes and major long-term investment. Yet to fail to try any of these changes or to refuse to make significant new investment in the educational enterprise is tantamount to saying that we are giving up, that the future educational achievement of our children is not worth it.

This is unacceptable in an era of accelerating progress in science and technology. Consider just for a moment the changes to our way of life and economy over the past 20 years:

  1. The Internet, including basic functions such as email and browsing, did not become widely available until the mid-to-late 1990s.
  2. Facebook did not appear until 2004.
  3. Smartphones did not appear until 2007.
  4. Hardware advances continue apace. The 2016 iPhone and Android devices are faster and have more memory than the world's most powerful supercomputer in 1990.
  5. In 2011, IBM's Watson, an artificial intelligence-based computer system, defeated Jeopardy! champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter. Now similar AI-based technology is being deployed into every sector of the economy.
  6. Self-driving cars and trucks, which are now being commercially deployed, were considered futuristic fantasies as recently as ten years ago. The success of firms such as Tesla and Uber is but a foretaste of the changes to come in the transportation arena.

Are you a bit breathless from all of these changes? All indications that the pace of change will only accelerate in the future. Indeed, we are facing a future when a large fraction of the world economy is based on mathematics, computing and science, and every person must be familiar with these subjects to be functioning, contributing members of society. We owe it to the next generation to provide the best education possible.

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