It seems that every month or so, another study comes out with the depressing news that the United States is falling behind other countries in test scores, particularly in areas such as reading, math, and science. Just this past December, two such studies were released which revealed that fourth graders in the U.S. were outscored by students in the Flemish region of Belgium, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Northern Ireland, Singapore, and Taiwan in mathematics. On the same day, another report stated that eighth grade students from Finland, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, Russia, Singapore, Slovenia, and Taiwan had bested American students in science. So rather than wringing our hands absently at these results, the question should be asked, what are these countries doing that American schools could be learning from?
Unfortunately, when judging this data, one of the key components which is often missed is the very democratic nature of the United States education system. Many of the programs which beat ours, including the Asian systems especially in Singapore and Hong Kong, have a strenuous “tracking system” which goes against the open system display in the U.S. In these systems, students are given standardized tests at a young age to place them in a college, vocational, or special education program. Once in, they will not be moved out until years later when another test is given to determine future placement. Usually after this second test, the child’s future is set in stone and their academic career will not be altered. Here, high-stakes testing is taken to an entirely new arena. Children’s futures live and die based on these tests. Whereas students in the U.S. can move fluidly through the system choosing to enter a vocation or go on to college, students in the heavily tracked countries only allow this latter option for their top test takers. So it should come as no surprise that our students lag behind in this testing when we are comparing all of the United States fourth or eighth graders in the testing samples versus the top students in these other countries who have tracked their students into the college bound programs.
This factor aside, what else helps other nations beat our students in fields such as mathematics? One of the biggest problem areas is also in teacher training. In the United States, education majors generally take more courses in educational theory than they do in their content area. So, when they enter a classroom, they know all of the recent theories on educational pedagogy, but they may not know everything that they should on the actual subject matter that they are instructing. The idea has, too often, been that they should know how to teach (and manage and discipline a classroom) and the subject matter can be handled through lesson plan books and teachers’ manuals. But other countries have found that the truly best teachers are the ones who can skillfully manage a class, hold students’ attention, and who also know their subject matter inside and out. They can take a math problem apart, show the students how to work it from several different perspectives, and also show them how to avoid common errors in the working of the problem. All of this comes from knowing the subject matter, not from simply following a rote script in a textbook. This is also why many other nations which are outscoring us are also paying their teachers on a much larger scale and, particularly in some Asian cultures, certain teachers are almost viewed as rock stars with followings of students who clamor to take their classes out of respect for the teachers’ abilities and knowledge.
Sadly, there is no quick fix to this to bring the U.S. up to our competitors in the education tests. These are systematic differences that will take widespread cooperation and deep work to bring about changes in our schools and our society. But, the first step is opening up an honest dialogue about what is wrong in our schools and systems so that we can fix the problems that we are faced with.