(MintPress) – “If students are going to succeed in the competitive global economy, they need to be exposed to a rigorous curriculum. But many students believe their class work is too easy,” wrote Ulrich Boser and Lindsay Rosenthal, in an introduction to a new study which found that students in American elementary and high schools are not being challenged in schools.
The survey says
Despite 21 percent of 12th graders and 37 percent of fourth graders reporting that math classes were “too easy,” only 40 percent of fourth graders and 35 percent of eighth graders were deemed “proficient” on the National Assessment for Educational Progress math test.
Boser, a Senior Fellow, and Rosenthal, the Special Assistant for Domestic Policy at the Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank, analyzed years of survey data collected by the U.S. Education Department. The survey — which asked K-12 students in American public schools questions such as, “Do you understand your teacher?” and, “Do you find the subject matter too easy?” — were conducted using the National Assessment for Educational Progress, a low-stakes standardized test used by education professionals to compare states’ academic performance with each other.
“More than a third of high-school seniors report that they hardly ever write about what they read in class. In a competitive global economy where the mastery of science is increasingly crucial, 72 percent of eighth-grade science students say they aren’t being taught engineering and technology, according to our analysis of a federal database,” the study concludes.
The study also found that more than half of 12th graders said civics and history are often or always too easy, and almost a third of eighth-grade students report reading fewer than five pages a day either in school or for homework. “That’s below what many experts recommend for students in middle school,” the study pointed out.
Eighth-grade students across the country reported that they rarely write lengthy answers to reading questions on tests: Approximately one-third of students write long answers on reading tests twice per year or less.
And, the study found that these issues are similar at the high school-level, as 39 percent of 12th-grade students, for example, say that they hardly ever or only once or twice a month write about what they read in class. Nearly one-third said they write long answers on reading tests two times a year or less. Moreover, almost one-third of 12th-grade reading students say they rarely identify main themes of a passage when reading, and almost 20 percent said they never or hardly ever summarize a passage.
The study does make a note that the data doesn’t measure the quality of the work that students are performing in class—and says that the quality of the work can make a big difference in how much students learn. “Students might be reading just a few, very rigorous pages every day, for instance. But given overall low reading scores—and the degree to which more reading promotes more learning—we believe these results should be cause for alarm,” the authors of the study say.
The reasons behind why the trend occurs is perplexing — even to the study’s authors.
“The current data don’t allow for an analysis of why this is happening and far more research needs to be done to increase the understanding of what student perceptions tell you about their classroom experiences,” they wrote.
How the U.S. education system ranks internationally
It’s no secret that American students have been lagging behind students in other countries in subjects across the board on a global scale.
“The United States may be a superpower but in education we lag behind. In a recent comparison of academic performance in 57 countries, students in Finland came out on top overall. Finnish 15-year-olds did the best in science and came in second in math. Other top-performing countries were: Hong Kong, Canada, Taiwan, Estonia, Japan and Korea,” Senior Editor Marian Wilde confirms in an article published by GreatSchools, a website covering issues within American K-12 education.
Wilde points out that on average, 16 other industrialized countries scored above the U.S. in science and 23 scored above us in math, and the ranking of the U.S. has remained at that level for years.
The United States also has one of the biggest gaps between high- and low-performing students in an industrialized nation.
Measuring teacher effectiveness
Aiming to understand how to help students in American classrooms to succeed, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation launched the two-year Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project to rigorously develop and test multiple measures of teacher effectiveness in the fall of 2009.
The project was embarked upon after researchers at Stanford University discovered that a teacher has more impact on student learning than any other factor controlled by school systems, including class size, school size and the quality of after-school programs — or even which school a student is attending.
In that project, data from 300,000 children studied over several years was analyzed. Researchers, using Tripod Project surveys — developed and refined at Harvard University — assess whether or not students agree with a variety of statements designed to measure seven teaching practices that the survey’s authors call the “Seven Cs.”
The surveys asked students to assess whether they feel their teachers were caring, captivating, conferring, able to control behavior in the classroom, challenge students, clarify lessons, and consolidate (or summarize) lessons learned in the classroom.
That study suggested small but important ties between students’ perceptions of teachers and teachers’ ability to increase test scores.
“Classrooms in which students rated their teachers higher on the Seven Cs tended also to produce greater average achievement gains. Results such as these can improve the feedback teachers receive and help them refine their teaching to raise student achievement,” the survey said.
But, not everyone agrees that the owness for bored American students, lagging behind their peers internationally should fall squarely on the shoulders of American teachers.
“We know from multiple sources that today’s young Americans are falling behind their peers in other countries when it comes to academic performance. We also know that U.S. businesses are having trouble finding the talent they need within this country and, as a result, are outsourcing more and more of their work. One major reason for this slipshod performance is the disorderly, dysfunctional way we’ve been handling academic standards for our primary- and secondary-school students. Yes, an effective education system also requires quality teachers, effective administrators, and a hundred other vital elements. But getting the expectations right, and making them the same everywhere, is important and getting more so,” wrote Chester Finn, Jr., a Professor of Education at Vanderbilt University, in an article for the Wall Street Journal. Finn is also president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and chairman of the Hoover Institution’s Koret Task Force on K-12 Education.
“Uncle Sam is partly to blame for pressing in ways that reward low standards. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, for example, coerces states into deeming the maximum number of kids “proficient” on their tests, but leaves it up to the individual states to determine what score qualifies as passing,” he said.
Finn recommends that the Common Core standards, a set of national standards recommended by the Obama Administration for English and math developed by a consortium of governors and state-level school chiefs, be used in all American public schools. The standards are in place in about 45 states today, but not in every school within those states. A similar project is working on developing national standards for science.
“Setting the right expectations is at least a first step in giving our entire K-12 education system the makeover it sorely needs,” he said.