STEMbeats Blog

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