In this week’s “Science Times” section of The New York Times (September 3, 2103), all the articles examine the myths and mysteries behind the fear that the United States is falling behind globally in math and science education. While not all statistical studies are equally reliable, a few “factoids” and fundamental findings in these articles are worth noting.
For example, despite the most recent 2011 study suggesting that as a nation we rank 9th in science and 10th in math (according to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or Timss, which tested over 600,000 students in 63 countries), Massachusetts’ scores place it 6th in math and 2nd in science, the highest individual state scores ranked against the other nations. One article tracks how Massachusetts addressed its issues by persevering through reforms that began poorly but eventually resulted in real improvements.
Or consider the varied kinds of educational reforms attempted in recent decades, with shifting calls to focus on teacher education, dollars spent, curriculum, and outside remediation. A new approach measures the effectiveness of these different reform efforts the way medicine would test a new drug, with randomized studies of students in contrasting groups that include a placebo. Under these more scientific conditions, study results counter-intuitively suggest that the choice of textbook has a greater impact on student growth than the quality of teacher (granted, having a great teacher also helps, but not as much if that teacher is forced to use a bad text). In this same study, a well regarded online math program had no positive effect on student learning.
But doesn’t all this apply just to the ills of American public school education? What good do these insights offer us at the Academy? First, we should remember to question seemingly logical assumptions, since an initial common sense expectation might not always be accurate…and not all instances that “studies show” prove valid, despite dazzling statistics. Second, at the Academy we have both great teachers and excellent texts (often primary sources), a combination that has a synergy benefiting our students. And the good news about Massachusetts’ success reminds us that we are embedded not only in a major research university, but also in a state with a high commitment to quality education, K-16 and beyond. Such success raises the tide that floats all of our boats.
Math and science education generates a lot of attention. At the Academy, we are equally interested in the state of liberal arts education, which encompasses the humanities and the arts. Stay tuned!
James S. Berkman
Head of School