Education Report Card
November 21, 1996
A study released yesterday finds American eighth graders trail students in some Asian nations in math and science but perform about the same as young people in Germany or England. The U.S. Department of Education led the survey which is the largest to date. It compared more than 1/2 million students in 41 countries. For more on this, we're joined by "Newsweek" education reporter Pat Wingert.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thanks for being with us, Pat.
PAT WINGERT, Newsweek: It's nice to be here.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: This is not new. We have learned from other studies that American students were behind in math and science. What's different about this study?
PAT WINGERT: Well, this study is the best study, the most comprehensive, the most thorough study that has ever been done involving so many countries. In the past, we've done studies in the 70's and the 80's, but they were very flawed studies. Often, we were comparing apples to oranges. We were comparing the average American kid to the best of Japan or the best of Germany. This turnaround for methodology is much better, and so we're really looking at the average American kid versus the average Japanese kid, versus the average Singapore kid, and so the results--I think we can trust these results a lot more than we have in the past.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And they actually looked--they actually used quite different methods, didn't they? They videotaped. They looked at how teachers actually performed in the classroom.
PAT WINGERT: They did several different things. They videotaped, as you said. They looked at case studies, and they also gave them a test, a multiplication--I mean, multiple choice test, and they had to write out answers on this test. So we have a lot of different data to look at. They also looked at things like how much homework kids do and how they spend their time after school. So there's a lot of different elements, a lot more information than we've ever seen in an international test before.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And in which countries do students do best and worse, and where did the U.S. fit in?
PAT WINGERT: Well, the best--let's look at math first. In math, the Asian countries did the best. Singapore was the star. Singapore was the star in both science and in math. Korea, Japan, Hong Kong all did very well, and so did the Eastern Bloc countries. The U.S. in math was slightly below average, which was pretty disappointing. It's where we've been in the past, and it's where we still are. In science, we did a little bit above average, which is we think a reason to be happy. We didn't do terrifically, but we did better than we had in the past. Those same countries did better than we did--the Asian countries and the Eastern Bloc countries--in science as well. So below us were countries like Iran, Jordan, countries that we would certainly expect to do better than, and the countries that did about the same as us were Germany, some of the Scandinavian countries, England, and Canada. So I think you can see now how we kind of fit into the whole.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And we were a little above average in science and a little below average in math, right?
PAT WINGERT: Right.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Why? What did this study find American schools are doing wrong?
PAT WINGERT: Well, basically we seem to be doing a lot of things wrong. Let me start by saying that our teachers are working very hard. That's what this study says. This study says that American teachers spend more time teaching math and science, they give out more homework, which means they're correcting more homework. And they're covering more topics in a year than your typical teachers around the world. But they're teaching it in a very dry way. They're teaching it in a way where they present a problem to the class at the beginning of the day, and they say, I'm going to try to do this kind of fraction problem, and then they have kids do those fraction problems at their desks and then they give them fraction homework--fraction problems to take home for homework. Well, that's not the most effective way to do it. What they saw in the videotapes in Japan, for example, was that the Japanese teachers were teaching the way that American reform documents have been saying for years that we should be doing it. They give kids problems in a more realistic way. You know, you have this piece of property, you have to divide it in half, how would you do it? And then they have the kids sit there and really struggle, and it's not an easy answer.
It's something that they may have to sit there and work out for 20 minutes and they're not sure they have the right answer, and then they have a class discussion where kids will get up and say, well, I think this is the way to do it, or this is the way to do it. So that kind of discussion gets kids emotionally involved in the answer, and brain research in this country says the more emotional you are about something that you're learning, the better you're going to remember it. So those kids are getting excited, and they're--they're fighting over their answer, and then the teacher finally gets up and says, well, I think this is the best way, and now watch while I do this, and all these kids that have been sitting there struggling suddenly say, he's right, that is the right way, and they remember it as a result. It was very frustrating to these researchers to realize that when they talk to the teachers in American classrooms that the American teachers, for example, are very aware of what math reform documents had said, and they thought that they were doing it. That was the really distressing part. And yet, when they went and videotaped, all these researchers came back saying, but they're not doing it. They don't realize it. They're not doing it. So what do we do now to get them to understand that we still have big changes to make? How do we get American teachers now to say, oh, no, after all this work, after spending all this time doing all this homework, we're still not doing better, how do we keep them on track and say we're still going to fight this, we're still going to figure out a way to teach kids in a more effective way because we want to be the best in the world.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, you have an example, I think, to show us, don't you?
PAT WINGERT: Right. Right. This example was handed out by the Department of Education. And the first problem shows how a typical math problem is taught in the United States. And as you can see, basically once you learn the method or the fast way of doing it, you can sit there and figure it out, and it doesn't really draw you in. I mean, once you know the method, you just do it. The second one--and I don't know if you want me to read this, or--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Just explain it.
PAT WINGERT: The second question, you have to read what the question is about, and then you have to sit there and look at the graph, and you're going to have to struggle. Several of us were look at this before the show, and we had a discussion between the three of us. Was this the right answer? Is this the right answer? Is this what they're trying to say? Well, you wouldn't be just able to figure it out like that. You'd have to sit there and think about it, and so you get drawn in more. You have to think more. You have to apply more. And it's just a much better kind of question.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Now the teachers are often having to teach the way they do because they're expected to cover so much, I understand. Is that part of the problem there's too much being covered and not enough in this different way?
PAT WINGERT: Right. Math teachers--most math teachers follow their textbooks, and most textbooks are written in a way so that teachers in California and teachers in Texas and teachers in New York will all buy them. But the result is we're packing way too much into each textbook. We're covering way too many topics. What the Japanese would do, for example, is they would start teaching kids fractions, and they would have fractions every day for multiple days, and they would build on that knowledge. What would happen in a typical American classroom is kids might get a little bit of fractions this year in the fall and maybe a little bit more fractions in the spring. Well, by that time, of course, they've forgotten some of the stuff that they learned in the fall, and then the next year they might learn a little bit more, but the teacher has to take them back to teach them again. We keep going over the same ground again and again in American classrooms. We're wasting time.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And so it seems that what this--does this imply mostly changes in teacher training?
PAT WINGERT: Yes.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: More than content. The content seems to be adequate, but there may be too much content, and there need to be changes in the way teachers approach it?
PAT WINGERT: Well, there needs to be reorganization of the content. It needs to be done in a more efficient--a more efficient way and a way that builds on knowledge. Teachers need to be retrained, and one of the things I think a lot of people walked away from this research saying is teachers need to see videotapes or see real live teachers teaching the way that they should be teaching. It's very hard to change the way they are teaching, just like it's hard to change the way that you're parenting. So teachers need to see real life examples. They need to see a teacher in front of them, doing it the right way. But the other thing that was really distressing--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I'm afraid we have to go.
PAT WINGERT: Oh, sorry.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thank you very much, Pat, for being with us.
PAT WINGERT: It's nice to be here.