and Science Study (1995)
For a time in the late 1990's, it seemed as if everyone was using the
reported results from TIMSS to rationalize different, sometimes opposing,
stances on how American students' performances in mathematics could be
improved. This is bewildering for parents and others who are not directly
involved in mathematics education. This introduction to TIMSS will quote
directly from the materials published by the U.S. Department of Education,
and give some links for further factual information. It should be emphasized
that the students being tested in TIMSS (1995) came from typical classrooms;
none of the students came from CPMP classrooms. However, the findings
are relevant to the way that CPMP is designed and intended to be used.
TIMSS collected data from a half-million students from 42 nations in
1995-96. Students were grouped at three levels, Grade 4, Grade 8, and
Grade 12 (or students in their final year of secondary school if the
nation did not have a grade 12). The purpose was to compare the mathematics
and science achievement in these countries. In addition, there were intensive
studies of students, teachers, schools, curricula, instruction, and policy
issues to better understand the influence of these factors on the achievement
results. Three countries were selected for in-depth studies which were
comprised of two parts: videotape analysis of mathematics instruction,
intended to allow a comparison of teaching techniques and the quality
of instruction; and ethnographic studies, intended to shed light on such
topics as education standards, working conditions of teachers, and the
role of school in adolescents' lives.
- At grade 4, U.S. students scored above average,
- By grade 8, they scored below the average, and
- By 12th grade, the situation was even worse.
"When we compare these 12th grade TIMSS results to the previously released fourth
and eighth grade results, we see a loss of competitive advantage." (From a 1998
press release by the U.S. Department of Education.) This means that, when comparing
the same groups of countries across grades, the relative standing of U.S. eighth
graders was lower than that of our fourth graders; and the standing of our 12th
graders was lower than that of our eighth graders.
These results caused great consternation among educators, but also provided
the impetus to look closely at what we teach, how we teach it and how
we assess it. None of the following excuses about unfair comparisons
between countries could be considered valid.
- "TIMSS is not an assessment of other country's best students against
our average students, but of the entire range of students in each
While the percentage of young adults who complete secondary school
in the U.S. once was significantly larger than the percentage in other
countries, this is no longer the case. Today, similar proportions of
young people are enrolled at the end of secondary schooling in most
of these countries. Since some nations group their students into different
types of schools with different graduation requirements, TIMSS assessed
students in their last year in all types of schools and programs in
all countries. This last grade ranged from the ninth grade in some
vocational programs through the 14th grade in other programs.
- Contrary to myths about U.S. education, our poor performance is
not because our student body is more diverse or because we have a
lot of low scores pulling down the overall U.S. average.
Most countries have students from diverse language and cultural groups.
It is also true that the other countries in this study have a similar
range of performance as the U.S., covering 300 points from the 5th
to 95th percentile. However, the entire distribution of U.S. scores
both starts and ends lower than in most other nations. This means that
the average level of general knowledge in mathematics among students
in a majority of these countries matched that of the top quarter of
U.S. students. Similarly, a student scoring at the 50th percentile
in mathematics in the U.S. would be at about the 25th percentile (or
below) in 12 nations. Therefore, we cannot blame our overall low performance
on our bottom students; the problem is across the board." (From a 1998
press release by the U.S. Department of Education.)
- It is more helpful to direct attention to the factors most closely
connected to students' performance, the curriculum they experience
and the effectiveness of the way that teachers teach the curriculum.
Below is a summary of some of the findings. You can find more information
U.S. policy makers are concerned about whether expectations for our students
are high enough and, in particular, whether they are as challenging as
those of our foreign economic partners. In all countries, the relationships
among standards, teaching, and learning are complex. This is especially
true in the United States, which is atypical among TIMSS countries in
that curriculum is defined at the local, rather than national level.
- "It appears that U.S. mathematics and science curricula lack the
coherence, focus, and rigor of the curricula taught in other countries
that participated in TIMSS. Most state curriculum frameworks emphasize
breadth over depth.
Mathematics and science textbooks in the United States were found to
be substantially longer than the international average and to express
the incoherence, fragmentation, and lack of rigor noted in the U.S.
curriculum." (See nces.ed.gov/timss/.)
- Japanese teachers widely practice what the international mathematics
education research community recommends, while U.S. teachers do so
Although most U.S. mathematics teachers report familiarity with recommendations
for teaching practice, only a few apply the key points in their classrooms.
- "The 8th-grade mathematics videotape classroom study conducted
in the United States, Germany, and Japan found American and German
lessons, unlike Japanese lessons, to focus primarily on the acquisition
and application of skills rather than problem solving and thinking.
When mathematical concepts are addressed, three-fourths of Japanese
and German teachers developed the concepts after introducing them compared
to less than one-fifth of American teachers. American teachers tend
only to state rather than develop concepts.
- There was less cohesion in American versus Japanese lessons.
While 62 percent of Japanese and 21 percent of German 8th-grade mathematics
lessons included deductive reasoning, no American lessons did. Lesson
plans from each country (with national origin disguised) were judged
by an independent group of American college mathematics teachers.
Eighty-nine percent of American lessons were found to be of low quality
and none were judged to be of high quality. In comparison, 11 percent
of Japanese lessons and 34 percent of German lessons were found to
be of low quality, and 39 percent of Japanese lessons and 28 percent
of German lessons were judged to be of high quality." (See nces.ed.gov/timss/.)
Curriculum and instruction are the pieces of the situation which are
under the control of educators, but they do not happen in a vacuum. Researchers
looked for information about the lives of students, to see if this could
explain the differing results. It is clear that there is no easy answer. "For
- Television: Students in other countries watch just as much
television as our students;
- Part-time jobs: More U.S. students work in part-time jobs
and work more hours than students in countries that scored higher and
lower than us; and
- Homework: Students in some countries that outperform us do
less homework and studying than we do, while students in other countries
that we outperform do more." (See nces.ed.gov/timss/.)
Since no CPMP students were assessed by TIMSS, you may be wondering how
these results are relevant to CPMP classrooms.
- One of the findings of TIMSS was that students are not typically
required to do very high level thinking in class.
Most U.S. teachers
spend their class time telling students how to do something, and students
follow their lead. This results in students having a very passive
view of learning, quite at odds with what we know about how learning
actually occurs, and at odds with the more active style of learning
required for results for CPMP students on released TIMSS items.
- Students often feel that the more passive style they may have
experienced prior to this is in fact the correct way to proceed.
viewing U.S. and Japanese lessons, U.S. students who participated
in the field testing of the (video study) module's materials were
asked which class they would choose to learn mathematics in, and
why. They said that they would like to be in the U.S. class because "the
teacher explained well and students were learning." When asked to
give specific evidence of "explaining well," some students replied
that "the teacher started sentences for the students to help them,
and he went step by step."
- Another of the findings of TIMSS was that the U.S. mathematics
curriculum kept more topics in every year from K-12. This results
in the "mile wide, inch deep" phenomenon that many educators noted.
in-depth study of fewer high-priority topics is done in other countries.
CPMP focuses on important mathematics and gives students time to
develop essential concepts. While some topics are revisited with
more abstraction in later courses, it is not the case that students
will repeat the same material.
- Another finding of TIMSS was that Japanese teachers focus on understanding
and U.S. teachers focus on skill. This is reflected in U.S. high-stakes
tests, which have traditionally valued skill acquisition and speed.
wonder then that U.S. teachers have internalized these values and
set up classrooms that seem compatible with what appear to be the
traditional goals. However, in terms of learning and understanding,
the TIMSS results show the shortcomings of this focus. CPMP classrooms
have a dual focus: first student investigations lead to firmly-grounded
learning; then homework and practice books (RAP) help automate skills.
As a parent you have a role to play in both of these areas. (See Helping
of Improvement Nationally
In 1999, the TIMSS was repeated with a subset of the eighth-grade students
of the original countries. Some states and school districts or consortiums
of school districts were entered as separate entities. Since some states
had been making efforts to improve standards and some school districts
had adopted research-based mathematics curricula, there was hope that
the results would reflect such efforts. In fact, the U.S. as a whole
placed in the middle of the participating nations. However, there was
considerable variation among the states and districts. Michigan outperformed
all other states, but still could not be called world class. Most
significantly, a set of Michigan schools whose mathematics curricula
were oriented around principles of coherence and rigor in standards and
reflected priorities similar to the Core-Plus Mathematics curriculum,
outperformed the state of Michigan despite being demographically similar
to the entire
These are encouraging statistics for educators.
It would appear that attending to the coherence of the curriculum and
the effectiveness of how that curriculum is taught can make a difference.
- Schmidt, William H., Curtis C. McKnight, and Senta A. Raizen. A
Splintered Vision: An Investigation of U.S. Science and Mathematics
Education. Boston / Dordrecht / London, Kluwer Academic Press,
1997. (See ustimss.msu.edu/publicat.htm.)
- The Policy Forum. A Wake-Up Call for U.S. Educators: The Third
International Mathematics and Science Study. (See www.ed.gov/pubs/policyforum/Spring99/timss.html.)