Friday, March 14, 2014

In the Education Olympics, the United States doesn’t earn a medal…

We blogged back in September that the U.S. had the number 17th ranked education system in the world. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recently released an analysis of their 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) - a survey done every three years to evaluate knowledge and skills of 15-year-old students. 510,000 fifteen-year-olds participated, representing twenty-eight million students in 65 countries. The 2012 survey focused on math.

For the U.S., the news isn’t good.

It turns out the United States is ranked 36th in the world in math, according to the survey. Now I'm no math expert, but I think that means there are thirty-five other countries ahead of us. This, despite our relative wealth (only Australia, Luxembourg, Norway and Switzerland spend more per student), and the fact that our parent population is the sixth most-educated in the world.

U.S. students, the survey shows, demonstrated problems with overall math literacy. While they understand basic mathematical concepts - such as reading data directly from tables or charts, or simple operations like plugging numbers into a formula and performing basic computations - they had difficulty with more advanced concepts (like π), or applying and interpreting mathematical aspects of real-life situations.

It’s not just what you know, but what you can do with what you know.

Socio-economic disadvantage plays a profound role in student performance in the United States. 15% of the gap in student performance is explained by students’ socio-economic status. Across most countries and economies, socio-economically disadvantaged students not only score lower in mathematics, they also reported lower levels of engagement, drive, motivation and self-beliefs.

A related contributing factor is our immigrant population. The United States has the 6th largest proportion of students with an immigrant background in the world. This contributes another 4% of the performance variation between countries.

The survey also found that girls, in the United States as well as abroad, were more likely than boys to report anxiety or feelings of helplessness when doing math. PISA results also show that even when girls perform as well as boys in mathematics, they tend to report less perseverance, less openness to problem solving, less intrinsic and instrumental motivation to learn mathematics and less self-belief in their ability to learn mathematics; girls are also more likely to attribute shortcomings in mathematics to themselves rather than to external factors.

What can be done? What can a teacher hope to do to offset such things as intrinsic motivation, economic disadvantage and immigrant status? The answer could lie in an emerging phenomenon in the U.S.: 5% of students are considered “resilient,” meaning that they are among the 25% most socio-economically disadvantaged students, but perform much better than would be predicted by their socio-economic status. They buck the trend, achieving at high levels, and share many of the characteristics of advantaged high-achievers. How do we explain this?

One contributing factor appears to be the learning environment itself. Particularly, Schools in the U.S. with better-than-average performance tend to have more positive student/teacher relationships, even after accounting for variables like the socio-economic status and demographic background. Conversely, schools where teachers' behavior negatively impacts learning also tend to be those who report low teacher morale. This relationship is particularly strong in the United States.

The tone set in the classroom can have a real impact on the performance of students. This could be a key first step to changing course and getting the U.S. back in contention globally.

Click HERE to read the key findings of the survey, or read the entire analysis HERE.

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