Thoughts on the TIMSS Results

A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to view an early screening of a documentary film featuring Tony Wagner, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who set out to explore how Finland became “the highest performing education system in the world.”  In the film he demonstrates how the intensive training of teachers, their continued collaboration, and their core approach to education—having students solve problems, rather than memorize information—all contribute to Finland’s success.

Fast forward two years to the just-released TIMSS data. On this international assessment of math and science, administered every four years, Finland once again performed quite well. In math in 8th grade it ranked eighth (out of 56 countries), bested only by the Asian powerhouses (Korea, Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong, and Japan), Russia, and Israel. In science (for 8th grade), it ranked fifth, with only Korea, Singapore, Japan and Taipei performing better. Clearly, Finland students have demonstrated high achievement.

But here comes the twist…. So did Minnesota students. You see, nine states committed to oversampling their schools so that they could be a standalone entity that would be compared to other countries.  Minnesota 8th graders well outperformed Finland’s in math and were essentially even with them in science.  Meanwhile, the United States as a whole ranked just behind Finland in math.  Though it lagged a bit more in science compared to Finland, it still ranked 10th overall, besting other countries like Australia, Israel, and Sweden.

So what do these results teach us? I want to make two points that are worth keeping in mind. The first is that just because Finland and Minnesota—and, even the U.S. overall—perform equally well on these international tests does not mean that there is not much of value we can gain from studying Finland’s school system and working to adopt some of its best practices. In particular, the ways in which Finland recruits, trains, and organizes teachers to collaborate are no accident, but represent a deliberate shift in policy starting in the 1970s. And this set of policies has created a teaching profession that is both high impact and highly respected.  (Similar teaching policies exist in the Asian nations, as well.)

The second point is to explain what might be some confusion when viewing these results.  After all, how can it be that politicians and, frankly, advocates like us can claim that our schools are failing to adequately prepare students to face the challenges of a global society?  Sure, our students are not performing to the standards set by large numbers of Asian students, but compared to most of our other key competitors, American students seem to be holding their own.

But that is because the country average only tells part of the story. Buried beneath the country- and state-level results is the hard truth that we all know, but, for me anyhow, still hits hard every time I see it.  Achievement is not evenly spread. In Minnesota, for example, students attending schools where at least 75 percent of the student body is poor score about 80 scaled points (math) and 100 points (science) below students attending schools with a poor student population ranging between 50 and 74 percent and even lower than the schools with smaller proportions of low-income students. The same basic proportions hold for the larger U.S. sample. Not to put too fine a point on it, poor students in this country are roughly equivalent in achievement to students in Armenia.

It is this disparity in results that, of course, motivates all of us at NCTL. Closing the achievement gap is fundamentally about getting poor children in the United States to achieve their potential just as their more affluent peers have. This goal is what drives us to do whatever we can to improve the schools—and, in turn, the life prospects—of our neediest children.  More time learning will certainly help, as will higher standards, better teaching, and increasing the capacity of schools to address individual student needs.  Just as we should not sell the overall achievement of American students short, neither should we rest until all our country’s children can claim the same level of success.