The eighth-grade math results of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) show that U.S. students scored slightly below average compared to their peers in 40 other participating countries. Performance varied by subject area, with U.S. students scoring above average in probability and statistics, average in algebra, fractions and number sense, and below average in geometry and measurement. Canada earned an above-average score overall. Singapore scored the highest, followed by Korea and Japan. Fourth- and twelfth-grade scores will be published this year.
Perhaps the most interesting and helpful information will come from the videotaped study of more than 200 eighth-grade classrooms in Japan, the U.S. and Germany. This should help us understand why Japanese and German students perform better than U.S. students on international tests.
Preliminary analysis of the videotapes reveals that Japanese math instruction, often comes closer to the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) Professional Standards for Teaching Mathematics than U.S. classes do. Typically, Japanese instructors present students with a problem and ask the students to come up with their own solutions. Students then present and discuss their approaches with the class. In contrast, German and U.S. teachers demonstrate how to solve a particular type of problem, and then students individually practice solving similar problems while the teachers work with students who need help. Teachers in the U.S. seem uncomfortable with confusion or struggle in the classroom. U.S. teachers rush in to help when a student is perplexed. In Japan, teachers encourage intellectual struggle as part of the learning process in every lesson. U.S. curricula feature a larger number of topics in less depth at each grade level, yet by eighth grade, U.S. students are studying topics that are usually covered in the seventh grade in Japan and Germany.
A group of mathematicians evaluated the TIMSS videotapes after they were transcribed and the languages changed to disguise the country of origin. According to the judges, 30 percent of Japanese and 23 percent of German lessons contained high-quality mathematical reasoning. No U.S. lessons fell into that category. In fact, 87 percent of the U.S. lessons received the lowest rating, compared to 40 percent of the German and 13 percent of the Japanese lessons.
The TIMSS study shows that although some U.S. teachers have begun to take advantage of the reforms suggested by the NCTM Standards, teachers sometimes emphasize isolated techniques such as cooperative learning instead of focusing on high-level mathematical thought.
NCTM Bulletin, December 1996, pp.1-9.
Published in ERN March/April 1997 Volume 10 Number 2