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Global Math and Science Education Trends


Last updated 7/13/2010

Worried about the scarcity of employees skilled in science and math? Try looking in various East Asian nations, which still seem to have the best 8th-grade math and science students in the world, judging from the results of the 1999 Third International Mathematics and Science Study-Repeat (TIMSS-R). This is a follow-up to a 1995 study, which showed similar results for most participating nations.

The highest-scoring math students are from Singapore, according to the TIMSS-R, followed by South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Japan. In science, the highest-scoring students are from Taiwan, Singapore, Hungary, Japan and South Korea. Ranked after these students are peers from various European nations as well as Canada and Australia. Meanwhile, U.S. students are in the middle of the pack. Rita Colwell, director of the U.S. National Science Foundation, called the results “a little bit depressing.”

In a high-tech future, it’s likely that businesses operating in nations with a large pool of people well educated in math and science will be at a huge competitive advantage. Perhaps that's why the results of the TIMSS are widely reported around the world and acted on by various governments. As a result of relatively low scores in the Philippines, for example, government officials are intent on “mapping out an action plan for the next round of exams,” according to BusinessWorld. Even in Korea, where 8th-graders score quite high, an official from the nation's Institute of Curriculum and Evaluation is quoted as saying, “The results show that there are serious problems in science and math education at Korean middle schools, compared with that of elementary schools.”

In the U.S., the TIMMS-R has only confirmed a long-standing education trend: in terms of what they should know at their respective grade levels, U.S. children perform worse in math and science the longer they stay in school. TIMMS-R math and science scores were lower for 8th-graders in 1999 than they had been for 4th-graders four years earlier, in 1995. The only truly positive note is that black 8th-graders raised their math scores during that time, though they showed no change in science achievement.

In the U.S., the National Commission on Math and Science Teaching in the 21st Century, also known as the Glenn Commission, took a year to study why U.S. scores tend to decline as students age. The commission—a panel of teachers, governors, members of Congress and business executives—found that math and science teachers in the U.S. are not adequately trained. In fact, highlights of TIMSS-R results confirmed the fact that many U.S. math and science teachers lack even a college minor in the subjects they teach. Only 41% of U.S. 8th-graders are taught mathematics by teachers who majored in math, compared with 71% of 8th-graders outside the U.S. This is just one area the panel believes needs to be corrected.

The commission’s report, Before It’s Too Late, proposes increasing paid, on-the-job time for training and professional development during the school year and the summer for math and science teachers, as well as providing more administrative support and better classroom equipment. To attract and train new teachers, the commission called for the creation of 15 new university-based math and science academies offering one-year $30,000 stipends to 3,000 prospective teachers. It also suggested that the federal government expand programs that forgive the student loans of math and science teachers who go to underserved schools. It notes that businesses can play a major role by making regular contributions of resources—in terms of money, equipment and trained personnel—to math and science programs at local schools.

Former Senator John Glenn acknowledges that the commission’s proposals are costly, but he warns that “It’s far, far more costly if we do nothing,” reports The New York Times. “Our kids aren’t going to be competitive,” and as a result, “we’ll see the good jobs in the world go to other countries.”

For more information on the TIMMS-R study, please see
http://nces.ed.gov/timss/timss-r/index.asp

To download the Glenn Commission report, please go to
http://www.ed.gov/inits/Math/glenn/toolate-execsum.html

For more information on education and training, please see HRI’s reports Challenges Facing Higher Education, Skill Level of the Workforce, and Employee Training and Development at www.hrinstitute.info