The US Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) 2011 report for 4th and 8th grade math and science proficiency ranks the US within OECD countries. The report shows that for 4th grade math, US student performance is very solid, above all countries except the several chart-busting leaders in east Asia. By 8th grade, the US results drop a bit, but still position the cohort of US students as a strong leader internationally. There is a persistent racial disparity within these results, with African American and Latino students underperforming. The results are very similar for science learning.
The OECD’s 2012 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) report, the premier international benchmark for ranking of 15-year-old student achievement in reading, mathematics, science and problem-solving within OECD countries, puts the United States slightly below the middle of the pack in all subjects, with a lower-than-average mean score and a higher share of low achievers. The US is in just about the same position with respect to students’ engagement, drive and self-beliefs. You could say that by the middle of high school our students and schools are striving for middling performance.
So as US students progress into high school, their overall performance in math and science slumps rather badly relative to their achievements at earlier grades. I sought to find out why. The University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research April 2014 Research Brief Free to Fail or On-Track to College: Why Grades Drop When Students Enter High School and What Adults Can Do About It focuses on the distinct fact that attendance and study habits decline from eighth to ninth grade. Its conclusions are: declines in academic effort explain the decline in grades; less adult monitoring at school makes it possible for students to reduce effort; and school and teacher practices make a difference in the course grades ninth-graders receive, even among students with similar prior performance. They say:
[S]tudents’ grades are strongly affected by their high school context, as well as by their experiences in individual classrooms with individual teachers. The ways that teachers and schools monitor students and provide instructional support may help to explain these differences.
Obviously, there are other factors that affect how any school or teacher strives for performance, and there are two that I think are worth mentioning here. First, that US teachers' salaries relative to per capita GDP, which correlates fairly well with student academic performance, is somewhat below the middle of the OECD nations’ pack. A formula for increasing success would ideally involve moving the pay scale up significantly.
My own view, in line with these findings, is that it is very important that a teacher sets high academic and behavioral expectations for students. And while everything “the system” (including the school culture, the school administration, the parents, the community’s standards and funding, the state and national educational policies) does certainly greatly influences the teacher’s response to this challenge, the teacher has decisive actions to take. If he/she cannot find herself sufficiently supported to prioritize his/her own unique daily role in setting the context for high performance, then he/she would be better off finding another job and letting the community figure out what more they need to do.
And yet… “the system” in the US allows some communities to languish with far less enriching support than others. This leads to my second factor, that greater equity in the allocation of educational resources (between richer and poorer communities) also correlates fairly well with overall academic performance, and in this respect the US is well towards the low end of the scale in international comparisons. So, sadly, the schools that need this kind of smart teacher involvement in expectations and outcomes most are the ones least able to hold onto teachers who can deliver.
This certainly accords with my personal observations. I see in front of me private schools and public schools, and while most of the private schools I see really understand these points and nourish the teacher’s capacity to cater to high performance, for the public schools it’s all about the school district’s wealth demographics and resulting application of resources. Right within minutes of where I live, I can point to prosperous school districts that do really well for their students, and poor districts that have a mighty struggle on their hands every school day.