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TIMSS, Time Travel and the State of STEM

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"In recent years, several studies have shown that, by international standards, the performance of U.S. students in mathematics and science is at best mediocre. This is not to say that our schools are failures. Nor is it to belittle the efforts of the many wonderful teachers in our schools. But it is to say that as a nation, we have been too slow to react to the educational demands of modern society. As a result:

• The lead we once enjoyed in educating scientists and engineers is eroding;
• Our work force lacks the skills it needs to deep American business and industry competitive."

Written in reaction to the 2011 TIMSS results?

Unfortunately, the answer is no. I helped write those words in 1989 when I worked for the Mathematical Sciences Education Board of the National Research Council. We weren't reflecting on TIMSS, of course, but rather mostly on SIMS, the Second International Mathematics Study, before science was even part of most internationally comparative studies!

SIMS was conducted in 1981-82 among eighth and twelfth graders and provided comparisons among 14 industrialized countries and six emerging countries (although some countries only participated at the eighth-grade level). It focused on curricula, classroom-processes, preparation of teachers, and attitudes of teachers and students toward mathematics. [Yes, it took longer in those days to get the results than now.]

I woke up to Tuesday morning's TIMSS 2011 results with an acute sense of déjà vu. There are some things that haven't changed very much since SIMS: expectations of students are still too low; time in class is often not used very effectively; teaching is not yet viewed as a prestigious profession; and most math curricula are not world-class.

But some things have changed for the better:

• We have actually gained real ground in math and science since 1995 (though most of the top-scoring countries improved even faster than we did.) Our students' performance puts us on par with, or even ahead of, some developed countries that performed better than we did in the '90s. Our reform efforts over the years have pushed us forward, albeit more slowly than I would have liked.

• States like Massachusetts and Minnesota, which created better standards and helped schools do a better job of teaching those standards, are seeing world-class results for their efforts.

• We now understand the importance of focusing on a small number of key topics in depth. More important, we're finally beginning to act on that understanding. No more 'spiral curriculum' or content that is "a mile wide and an inch deep." Witness the emergence of the Common Core math standards and the Next Generation Science Standards.

• We understand the need to increase high school graduation requirements in math and science. Witness Achieve's work around college- and career-ready requirements.

Having worked to disseminate the results on SIMS nearly 25 years ago and closely watched the release of every international study since, I know how disheartening it can be to wake up to the same news stories year after year, even decade after decade. This time, however, we have more reason for hope.

But we also have no reason for complacency. Other countries noticed the success of the economic benefits we reaped from big STEM innovations in the 1990s. Many are strategically and effectively strengthening their STEM learning pipelines, and the recent TIMSS results provide evidence of their success. We have to keep up our momentum and resolve.