Poor Math Scores Multiply

As printed in The Washington Times, January 3, 2001

In a recent press release with the headline, “U.S. Eighth Graders Above Average in Math, Science,” Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley declared, “Our students are successfully learning more math and science every year they’re in school, but we can do even better.”

To hear such a peppy response, you might think that the secretary was reacting to news that the United States was first among nations in education, or to a new survey showing that the performance of our students was much improved over previous years.

But what he was reacting to, in fact, was news that American eighth graders scored 19th in math and 18th in science out of 38 nations in the 1999 repeat of the Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS-R). He was reacting to the finding of that survey that the performance of American eighth graders in 1999 was no better than that of our eighth graders on the first administration of the tests in 1995, and was far below what they had achieved as fourth graders four years ago, when they placed 12th in math and third in science out of 26 nations.

He was reacting as well to the fact that, in the last round of these tests, our eighth graders were compared to a pool of nations that did not include eleven of the Western European countries that had participated in the first round, but did include 10 developing nations that did not take the tests in 1995. (When compared to the 23 nations that took both tests, American eighth graders scored below the international average in math and at about the average in science.)

The survey also revealed much about teacher preparation in the United States as opposed to that of teachers in other countries. It turns out, for instance, that an American eighth-grader is more likely than his international counterparts to be taught math by a teacher whose degree is in education, and less likely than students in other nations to be taught by a teacher with a degree in mathematics.

In reaction to this clear evidence of the poor training of U.S. teachers, Mr. Riley said, “It’s apparent that we need to make a major investment in upgrading teacher skills in math, science and other subjects. That’s something we can do immediately.” He then listed five items from the education budget still before Congress, only two of which were directly related to improving teacher quality.

Leaving aside the possibility that these disturbing results are being spun for political purposes, we may assume that the Pollyanna reaction of Mr. Riley is motivated by a desire not to discourage America’s schoolchildren, who, it has been suggested, are suffering a strain to their collective psyche by all this talk of how poorly our schools are doing. This is a nice sentiment, but it is very much out of place in the present circumstances.

Finding our schools inadequate for the job is not the same thing as telling our children that they cannot learn, and telling schools that they are doing just fine — as in “Our students are successfully learning more math and science every year they’re in school. . .” gives them little motivation to do better. When it would take, according to one calculation from the left-leaning Brookings Institution, 83 years for our students to catch up with their Japanese counterparts in math, it is simply perverse to say, “We can do even better.” No one’s feelings get hurt when we try to soft-peddle poor results, but no one gets a better education, either.

The first step in school reform is admitting that there is a problem. It may not be a pleasant task, and it may cause some discomfort in certain quarters, but it must be done if we are to make our students the best in the world, or at least allow them to be something more than above average. The disheartening results of the TIMSS-R have provided the perfect opportunity for a re-examination of the way our students are being taught math and science, and it is heartening to see that the National Science Foundation, at least, which administered the tests in the United States, along with the Department of Education, has taken up the challenge once again.

But what is still needed now is a clear statement of the facts from the highest official in the Department of Education. He must give Americans the bad news in a straightforward manner and make it clear that such results are absolutely unacceptable. He should tell the nation not that it can do better, but that it must. He should let every man, woman, and child in this nation know that scoring at just above the international average, and beating out only 19 or 20 other nations, is simply not good enough.

A strong statement from the top will not solve the problems that caused our eighth graders to show so poorly in international comparisons, but it will help focus our attention on them. Mr. Riley’s tactic, trying to make bad news seem somehow good, does nothing to help our students, and does much to harm their chances for the best possible education. Let’s hope our next secretary can be more straightforward.

H. Nathaniel Koonce, a former high school teacher, is Empower America’s education policy analyst.