STEM Beats - April 2011

In Case You Thought Early Success in Math Wasn't Important...

April 29, 2011

 A new study has found that early math skills predict later academic success. In fact, math skills in K-5 were a stronger predictor than reading skills, attention skills or social skills. In a finding that flies in the face of earlier research, study author Greg Duncan found that behavior problems at that early stage were not associated with later performance in math or reading.

In a separate study, Duncan and a colleague have found that students with persistent math problems in K-5 were much less likely than their peers to graduate from high school or attend college.

Duncan has plans for the next round of research. “The next level of research should focus on why math skills – which combine conceptual and procedural competencies – are the most powerful predictor of subsequent achievement and attainment,” he said in a press release. “Experimental evaluations of early math programs that focus on particular skills and track children’s reading and math performance throughout elementary school could help identify missing causal links between early skills and later success.”

If we knew more about those links, we might do a better job of putting struggling students on a path to success later on.


Tags: math

A Higher Bar for All of Us

April 28, 2011

Last week, CEOs in Change the Equation’s coalition came out forcefully for higher expectations for all students.  It’s well known that most states have set a low bar for their students and that pass rates on state tests don’t tell us nearly enough about how students are really doing. But we do not believe for a moment that raising the bar in itself is enough to turn every student into a champion high jumper. We have much work ahead to get students to clear it.

Better standards and a higher bar on state tests won’t mean anything unless they have a real impact on how teachers teach. The New York Times ran a story on Sunday that offers a taste of what that impact might be. A large and diverse high school in Queens is already test driving new “Common Core” content standards that 43 states have pledged to adopt. If they’re a success, those standards will change what happens in the classroom. Here’s an example from Queens:

A math teacher, José Rios, used to take a day or two on probabilities, drawing bell-shaped curves on the blackboard to illustrate the pattern known as normal distribution. This year, he stretched the lesson by a day and had students work in groups to try to draw the same type of graphic using the heights of the 15 boys in the class.

“Eventually, they figured out they couldn’t because the sample was too small,” Mr. Rios said. “They learned that the size of the sample matters, and I didn’t have to tell them.”

One could argue that good teachers should always engage students in this way, with or without clear standards. Yet not all teachers do, and even the best teachers need support. The need staff development, better curriculum tied to the standards, teaching tools to help bring standards to life, and state tests that accurately test what’s in the standards.

That’s a pretty high bar, and we’re all going to have to clear it together.


Tags: standards, Common Core

Is There Hope for Teacher Evaluation?

April 27, 2011

How should we evaluate teachers? Few questions these days are more vexed than this one. The old way was for principals to pop into classes every now and again and assign a rating. The fact that, in most school systems, the vast majority of teachers get a pat on the back--and scant advice on how to improve their teaching--has fueled fierce criticism of this method.

A much newer method is to tie teachers' evaluations to their students' test scores. The teachers whose students' scores see the most improvement get the highest ratings. Critics of this method charge that it is complex, prone to error, tied to unreliable state tests, and irrelevant to most teachers, because state tests cover relatively few subjects and grade levels.

A new study suggests a third way that can enhance the other two. Researchers at Harvard examined the Teacher Evaluation System in Cincinnatti, and they gave it a pretty positive report.

TES is based on classroom observations, but it is a far cry from what happens in most schools. Here's how the researchers describe it: "During the yearlong TES process, teachers are typically observed and scored four times: three times by a peer evaluator external to the school and once by a local school administrator. The peer evaluators are experienced classroom teachers chosen partly based on their own TES performance. They serve as full-time evaluators for three years before they return to the classroom. Both peer evaluators and administrators must complete an intensive training course and accurately score videotaped teaching examples."

The study of TES found that teacher who received high ratings were more likely to boost their students' test scores than those who didn't. What's more, it found that certain classroom practices were more effective than others. Another study of TES found that the evaluations themselves improved teacher performance in math (though not in reading).

These studies suggest that there is more to a good teacher than that je ne sais quoi principals are trying to sniff out in each crop of new candidates. There are observable, measurable practices that we can identify and teach. That's a lesson for the ages.


Algebra II? Trigonometry? What's in a Name?

April 26, 2011

High schoolers in the U.S. are taking more advanced courses than they ever have, yet their test scores have remained largely flat. What gives? Some experts blame false advertising: Many of those courses may be advanced in name only.

Sam Dillon tackles this issue in today’s New York Times. He reports on a recent federal High School Transcript Study, which found that the share of high school students taking a rigorous curriculum “nearly tripled” over the past twenty years. But he also checks in with researchers who have peered behind the curtain and found that some of those rigorous courses are not what they appear. According to William Schmidt, a researcher who examined the actual content of high school courses that may bear high-falutin’ names, “the titles didn’t reveal much at all about how advanced the course was.” 

Course title inflation might be most common in schools that serve students of color, worries Kati Haycock, who leads the Education Trust, a think tank that focuses on education equity. She notes that Black and Latino students who take a more advanced course load still score behind their white peers. “This picture of higher level course-taking with little or no progress in achievement raises serious questions about the level of course rigor in schools serving many students of color,” she writes.

Dillon touches on another possible cause for the gap between ambitious course schedules and flat performance on tests: High school seniors may not take the test seriously. The federal tests that paint such a bleak picture of high school seniors’ progress over the past 40-odd years have no consequences. That’s hardly the thing to inspire seniors to do their best work.

Still, there's ample cause to doubt what some high school transcripts seem to be telling us.


Tags: math, minorities

Will Our High Achievers Save Us?

April 25, 2011

We often hear that, though the U.S. lags behind many other countries in its students’ math performance, we have a healthy share of high achievers that puts us on par with those other high flying countries. Is that true?

According to a recent study (PDF), not so much. A trio of researchers compared the percentage of high achievers in the U.S. to that in other industrialized nations. They found that, even on that measure, we perform nearer the bottom of the than the top.

Some will object that our student population is much more diverse than that of high-flying countries, which might drag down our results. What happens when we focus only on students who are most likely to do well—say, students who have at least one parent who attended college? While our results get a bit better, even then we fall behind 14 other industrialized nations. And that’s an unfair fight, because we’re comparing a fairly privileged group in our own population with all students in those other countries.

So we can’t really take solace in our high achievers after all.