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12/9/2010
04:06 PM
Rob Preston
Rob Preston
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Innovation Mandate: American Students Score 'C' In Math And Science

In the first of a two-part series on STEM education, we look at the dim U.S. results on the latest PISA tests and ask: What's a country to do?

There was widespread agreement among the 45 or 50 people we interviewed for our Innovation Mandate series of coverage that the U.S. needs to pay more attention to technical education and/or training to prepare tomorrow's workforce. That's not to say they all see eye to eye on this issue, however. Some called for more funding; others for a whole new approach to teaching science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) principles and skills; others for getting companies to carry more of the burden through employee training and learning programs.

International test scores and other statistics indicate that American elementary and high school kids are falling behind students in other countries, particularly in math and science, but that U.S. colleges and universities are still turning out world-class graduates. Part of the problem at the U.S. primary and secondary school levels is lack of student interest in STEM, owing to a culture that places a low premium on technical career paths and the academic rigor they require. Others think it has more to do with the poor quality or out-of-date methods of STEM teaching.

The latest international tests meant to measure the academic aptitude of 15-year-olds--the Program for International Student Assessment, whose results were released on Dec. 7--show that American students continue to lag those in other countries in math and science. In math, American students ranked 31st among 65 countries and below the average of countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In science, American students ranked 23rd, on par with the OECD average. American 15-year-olds fared similarly on the 2006 PISA tests: 32nd in math and 23rd in science.

On the PISA 2009 tests, students in Shanghai, China, ranked No. 1 in both math and science, topping No. 2 Singapore in math and No. 2 Finland in science. (China participated in the PISA tests for the first time last year but limited that participation to its largest and most educated city.)

The PISA results drew concern among U.S. educators. "We have to see this as a wake-up call," Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told The New York Times. "I know skeptics will want to argue with the results, but we consider them to be accurate and reliable, and we have to see them as a challenge to get better."

Among the interesting conclusions of the PISA 2009 report:

  • Students tend to perform better in countries whose schools have greater autonomy over what is taught and how students are assessed, and where students are held accountable through posting achievement data publicly
  • Schools that compete more for students tend to perform better in many countries, but that's often accounted for by the higher socio-economic status of students in those schools.
  • Higher teachers’ salaries, but not smaller class sizes, are associated with better student performance.
  • Schools with superior resources tend to do better only to the extent that they also tend to have more socio-economically advantaged students. In other words, once schools have the minimum resources to allow effective teaching, additional material resources do little to improve outcomes.

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