Why Do We Think So Highly of Ourselves?

March 11, 2011

David Brooks thinks Americans are just a bit too full of themselves, and he cites research to back up his claims. He points to recent surveys that paint the US as a veritable Lake Wobegon, where every high school kid says he has above average leadership skills, every college professor thinks she has above average teaching skills, and every college student says he's easy to like. Ask young people about their ability in math and science, and you'll find a similar pattern. Why?

Brooks sums up findings from recent surveys of student opinions on math:

American students no longer perform particularly well in global math tests. But Americans are among the world leaders when it comes to thinking that we are really good at math.... Students in Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan have much less self-confidence, though they actually do better on the tests.

Many social critics blame this inflation of self regard on parents and teachers who boost young people's self esteem and trust that actual achievement will follow. Are the critics right? Perhaps.

Yet in the case of math, at least, our young people might be drawing a logical conclusion from the information they're getting. The vast majority of high schoolers have gotten the message that the US students as a whole don't do particularly well in math, but most think pretty highly of their own abilities. Thistension may reflect the mixed messages they're receiving.

US students don't do very well on the National Assessment of Educational Progress or the Programme for International Student Assessment, but they don't take it personally. Those tests are given only to a sample of US students, and the students who do take them don't see their individual results. Students can see their results on state tests, however, and state tests tend to set a much lower bar for success. It's all the easier, therefore, to blame all those other kids for our mathematical woes.

One way to bring our students back down to earth is to raise the bar on state tests. We can't expect them to strive for something higher if we're not being honest with them in the first place.


Tags: math, science

What It Means to Raise the Bar

March 10, 2011

Yesterday, Secretary Duncan warned that 82 percent of US schools could be labeled as "failing" under the No Child Left Behind law. He cited the number in testimony urging swift action on the law's reauthorization. Quite a few people have contested his data, but the fact remains that more and more schools will not meet "Adequate Yearly Progress" as the 2014 deadline to have all kids proficient in reading and math looms.

Some have argued that the law sparked a race to the bottom among states. If you need to get all of your students over the bar, it's awfully tempting to lower that bar. And indeed, the proficiency bar in many states is very low.

Even if No Child Left Behind drops or dramatically changes its "Adequate Yearly Progress" provisions, we'll still have to come to grips with widespread low performance. Most states have committed to common standards, and common tests are not far behind. If those states stay true to their commitment to raise standards (which means they'll have to set higher cut scores on more challenging tests), then we'll face the spectacle of plummeting student proficiency rates, even without No Child Left Behind.

No Child Left Behind may well create a big mess if sanctions kick in for huge numbers of schools around the country. Many have argued that the 100 percent proficiency target isn't reasonable.

But, as Secretary Duncan has often said, state leaders will need a lot of backbone to stay true to their commitment to high standards. We can't simply lower the bar and declare victory.


Cheating Our Students

March 9, 2011

Sometimes numbers do lie. That's the major theme of a breakout story in Sunday's USA Today. Reporters at the paper found more than 1600 cases where sudden surges in student test scores were fishy, to say the least. The big news was that, in the vast majority of cases, officials did nothing to investigate the anomalies.

Such evidence of cheating is without a doubt very shocking, especially when teachers and principals seem to be the culprits. But problems with state test results go far beyond cheating. Cut scores on state tests are often so low that the results of those tests are well nigh meaningless.

In the six states where USA Today looked for evidence of cheating, for example, 75 percent of fourth graders, on average, cleared the proficiency bar on their state math tests. Yet only 37 percent of those same students cleared the bar on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which many experts see as the gold standard for US assessments. We can't blame cheating for that gap, but we can blame low expectations.

Until recently, for example, the bar in New York State was set so low that many students could pass by simply guessing on all of the questions. The State Board of Regents raised their cut scores last year and saw their state's student proficiency rates plummet. The Regents took the courageous and principled stand that an honest assessment of student knowledge and skills was worth the bad press.

Yet in many other states, state tests continue to set a low standard. A mother who hears that her child is doing just fine is in for a rude awakening when that child tries to make it in college or a career.

The vast majority of teachers and principals would never dream of cheating. It's the tests themselves that may not be telling the truth.


Tags: math, science, standards

Bridging the Chasm Between Grad School and Grade School

March 8, 2011

"The way science is taught, it’s as though everything has already been figured out. When children leave the classroom, they don’t feel empowered like they could actually contribute something to science, and I think that’s a huge problem.”

Those are the words of Sharlene Demos, a newly-minted PhD in bioscience who plans to make a difference in how science is taught. The CENtral Science blog just profiled Demos, who hopes to "make a career out of crossing academia with K-12 outreach. She loves working with kids and says her goal is to become a professor that helps bridge the gap between research scientists at the university and kids in grades K-12."

This makes her a bit of a rare breed. The chasm between colleges and schools can be very deep, so it's refreshing to hear about bridge builders like Demos. (The National Science Foundation is trying to create more like her through its GK-12 fellowship.)

Do you know of other trailblazers like Demos?


Tags: science

Why Math Matters in Uncertain Times

March 7, 2011

In case you're sleeping too well at night, considering the following newsreported by The New York Times:

A new report by McKinsey & Company, the consulting firm, is gloomy about retirement. The report, Restoring Americans’ Retirement Security: A Shared Responsibility, says, “The average American family faces a 37 percent shortfall in the income they will need in retirement,” meaning “the average household will face a retirement savings shortfall of nearly $250,000 by the time of retirement.


The McKinsey report says that group faces the biggest challenge, but “they have the greatest ability to recover by changing their behaviors.” “This group,” the report says, “must rely almost entirely on personal savings” because the payouts from traditional defined-benefit pensions “will provide one-tenth of the retirement income of their parents’ generation.”

Yes, people will certainly have to save more. But they'll also have to be much savvier about their retirement options and wiser about their investments as the security of defined benefit plans fades into the night. And they'll have to be much better at math. A simple understanding of compound interest, for example, can go a long way.


Tags: math

Rallying more than 100 Bully Pulpits Around STEM Learning

March 3, 2011

Can corporate funding boost STEM education? That’s one of many questions MindShift blogger Sara Bernard recently asked Change the Equation (CTEq) CEO Linda Rosen. Their conversation is captured in Bernard’s recent post.

Learn why five of the nation’s top business leaders came together last fall to form the now 110-member strong CTEq; how Rosen addresses skepticism toward corporate funding of public education programs; and why she thinks it’s critically important for the United States to rally around improved STEM learning outcomes.


The Hidden Scientists of Hollywood

March 2, 2011

From The New York Times comes news that newly-minted Oscar winner Natalie Portman was a semi-finalist in the Intel Science Talent Search, a student of neuroscience at Harvard, and an all-around smartypants. The piece, by science writer Natalie Angier, mentions a few other actors who have excelled in science. Danica McKellar helped develop a mathematical proof. Hedy Lamarr was a rocket scientist.

We can add a couple of other actors to the list. Will Smith (it is said) was admitted to a pre-engineering program at MIT. Dolph Lundgren(remember him?) had a Fulbright at MIT but quit to pursue acting. There are surely others.

In a culture obsessed by celebrity, it's heartening to hear about actors like Portman, who make such a mark in math and science. We need all the positive role models we can get in an age when Snooki's bar brawls and Lindsay Lohan's latest legal pecadillo dominate the tabloid and even the mainstream press.

So we just named five actor/scientists. Can you name any others?


Tags: science, math

Creating the Future We Want for Women in STEM

March 1, 2011

Follow-Up: The Future We Create Conference was an inspiring success. Click here to watch the broadcast in its entirety; skip to 15:34 to hear our CEO Linda Rosen advocate for a learning environment of collaboartion, discovery, and community to help create more women leaders in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM).

 Change the Equation CEO Linda Rosen knows exactly when her lifelong love affair with math began: the first day of her seventh grade math class. Rosen was part of a class of students who were piloting new math curriculum materials. “From that moment on, I was hooked,” she said. So hooked in fact that she couldn’t get home fast enough that day to do her homework about different number bases.

Rosen wants girls across the U.S. to get as excited as she is about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM)—whether or not they ultimately choose to go into a STEM career.

Rosen is one of 60 luminaries being featured today on a free virtual conference hosted by Dow Chemical Company.  The hour-long "micro-conference" seeks to answer the question: How can we work together to expand women’s contributions and leadership in chemistry and the sciences?

Hosted at, the event will consist of videos from speakers in the fields of chemistry and other sciences, business, journalism and literature, and women's studies.

We invite you to listen to and be inspired by Linda’s story. And the dozens and dozens of other women who have exciting, challenging careers in STEM-related fields. Find out what sparked their interest and what they recommend moving forward.

For more information go to


Tags: math, women & girls

Will Watson Revolutionize Testing in Education?

February 27, 2011

Even if you aren't much of a Jeopardy fan, you most likely heard about the rout that took place on the show the week before last. An IBM computer named Watson soundly beat two all-time Jeopardy champions. After day two of the three-day drubbing, we pondered what effect Watson could have on education. Not surprisingly, the folks at IBM have thought much deeper on this question than we have.

Stanley Litow of IBM believes Watson could revolutionize educational testing. Here's what he toldThe Chronicle of Philanthropy:

In the United States of America, we have something called the common core standards that have now been developed in more than 40 states. We’re now developing new standards in science, math, history, and English. But if you’re still stuck with the same multiple-choice testing, even if you have higher standards, it won’t raise people up, it will dumb things down so people base their teaching and learning on those multiple-choice tests.

The technology behind Watson blows that up. It says you could have long-answer questions, you could have the ability to grade lengthy paragraphs of information. If the testing system incorporates that, it will allow teachers to test to higher standards and children to learn at higher levels. And it will save lots of money in what is currently a very ineffective and inefficient testing and assessment system.

Could Watson save us from the bubble test?

Disclosure: IBM is a member of Change the Equation.

(Hat tip to the Huffington Post.)


Tags: computer science, technology

Urban Districts Lag in Science

February 25, 2011

In the past few months, we've had to endure a steady drumbeat of middling to bad news about how US students are doing in math and science. Yesterday came the news that students in many of our largest urban districts are doing much worse than the uninspiring national average. Surprising? No. Depressing? You bet.

The 2009 Trial Urban District Assessment in science found that almost three out of every four fourth graders in Detroit scored below basic in science. What's worse, students seem to lose ground as the go through the system. A jaw-dropping four fifths of Detroit's 8th graders were below basic. Things were barely better in Cleveland and Baltimore.

The differences among cities are every bit as interesting as the big headlines. One urban district, Austin, Texas, was on par with the US average in both fourth and eighth grades. Charlotte and Jefferson County (Louisville, Kentucky) met the national average in fourth grade but were lower in eighth. Fourth grade Black students in Boston and Charlotte did better than Black students nationally.

Why do some districts to better than others with certain groups of students? The answers to that question might yield some big insights into what works in urban education.


Tags: science, minorities


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