Mike the Mad Biologist

The U.S. Can Teach Kids Math Provided…

…they live in Massachusetts. Most of us have read the “ZOMG!! AMERICAN KIDZ DON’T KNOW TEH MATHZ!” stories. But a recent study (pdf), found by way of Matthew Yglesias, points out that some states in the U.S. actually do better than most countries (and then there’s Mississippi, Alabama, and Washington D.C.).

The authors took the NAEP test, which is administered to U.S. fourth and eighth graders, and used a cohort which also took the international TIMSS test, to transform the NAEP data into equivalent TIMSS scores.

Looking at the fourth grade scores, MA, with an average TIMSS score of 572, is surpassed only by Hong Kong and Singapore, and is tied with Chinese Taipei and Japan. In eighth grade, MA, which still is significantly higher than other U.S. states, falls behind Hong Kong, Singapore, S. Korea, Taipei, and Japan. To put this another way, Massachusetts, along with several other U.S. states, including Minnesota, New Jersey, and New Hampshire, blows away all of Europe.

The other interesting thing is that many cities do quite well. Charlotte, for instance, is no different than North Carolina as a whole. Boston, while worse than MA, looking at fourth graders, is only surpassed by twenty states (not including MA)–Boston would actually be an above-median ‘state’ (although, states with large cities will also score lower if their cities underperform, inflating the ‘ability’ of Boston).

I won’t even try to tease apart why MA (and some other states) do so well. Without detailed demographic data attached to individual scores, it’s almost impossible to dig into individual factors, such as poverty, divorce rates, movement from school to school, and parental education–all of which are correlated.

But it’s no accident that the states which do well typically have low childhood poverty rates, decent incomes, and lower divorce rates–all signs of stable families which are conducive to learning.

So I don’t know whether to be optimistic about this or not. Yglesias argues that other states can learn from MA and other high performing states. But I wonder if the real lesson to be learned is that the ‘extra-educational’ environment–what students walk into the school with–plays a really big role. If so, that’s beyond any board of education or teacher’s union.

Or maybe it’s just all the gay marriage….

Comments

  1. #1 cc
    June 22, 2009

    Thanks for posting this study.

    Also, thank you for pointing out (at least informally) that there is a correlation between outside-of-school factors and student learning.

    I realize that as a math teacher I do have a role to play in student learning and understanding. I also see how different students come to school at with different abilities (duh!). I do my part to work with students and get them where then need to be by the time they need to be there, but those non-school factors play a bigger role in student lives than many of the “deciders” would care to think about.

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