Posted by: Dave Moursund
Tagged in: Women in STEM Education
Today I had lunch with a man who graduated with me from high school. We reminisced about changes in education over the many years since we graduated. He brought up the topic of the U.S. schools not being as good as those in many other countries.
I encouraged him to elaborate on this topic for a while before I put in my “two cents” worth. He has been educated by the popular media on how many countries are outscoring U.S. students on tests designed for international comparison. His conclusion is that U.S. students are lazy—or, at least lazier than students from many other countries.
He then went on to talk about students nowadays expecting to be told exactly what will be on the test and “giving the teacher a hard time” if the teacher does not adhere to the "rules" of this testing game. For example, if a test covers something in the readings that was assigned but not presented and discussed in class (or, vice versa), students may consider this completely unfair and cause an uproar.
When it comes to state and national tests, the expectation is that what will be tested is specified well enough in advance so students can directly study for the test and teachers can directly teach to the test. We currently are facing a strong movement toward national standardization of the curriculum content. Teachers (and tutors) often place considerable effort on helping students to get better at test taking. The educational goal becomes one of scoring well on the test. Notice that this is not the same as gaining a decent level of knowledge, skills, and understanding of the content area.
Of course, you know all of this. Now, how does one design valid, reliable, fair tests that can be used throughout the world? Students have different languages, different cultures, different levels of Socioeconomic Status (SES) within the world or within their countries, different levels of general health and medical care, etc.
This turns out to be a very difficult task. In fact, many who consider this situation carefully argue that it is an impossible task. One makes that task somewhat easier by picking math and science as the disciplines to be tested. After all, aren’t math and science the same throughout the world? Aren’t they free of any test bias due to language, culture, and so on? (Well, if you believe that, I have a bridge located someplace in the New York City area that I will sell you quite cheaply.)
If we just look in the United States, for most of my lifetime it has been argued that girls are not as good at math as boys—and we had the test scores to prove it. Now this situation has changed. Lo and behold, girls are now as good as boys in math. Take an even more important issue. Girls are now more apt to graduate from high school and go on to college than boys!
In brief summary, you should be very suspicious of any major educational change being suggested in this country because students in some other country outscored us in math and/or science at various grade levels. There are too many other quite important variables that are not being taken into consideration.
What you should be interested in is whether students in this country are getting a good education relative to their current and future needs, and relative to the needs of various other stakeholder groups. You should carefully examine proposals designed to improve the education our students are getting. Many of the changes being made lack credence. They lack good evidence that they will succeed in improving the education of students.
The stakeholder issue is interesting to consider. You are probably familiar with the example that parents in any particular part of our country tend to think well of their local schools. Various other stakeholder groups, such as recruiters for our armed services, businesses doing hiring, and higher education faced by the task of providing remedial coursework to entering freshmen, all feel otherwise.
I believe that our educational system can be greatly improved. However, I don’t believe we can do this by trying to imitate the educational systems in countries that are a great deal different from our own.
Spend a bit of time reflecting on what you have just read. How does the information fit in with your current knowledge, beliefs, and activities? How can you make use of the information to help improve our informal and formal educational systems? Who do you know that might benefit from reading this IAE Blog entry?
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