a response to John Leo's March 9, 1998 U.S. News & World Report column "Hey, We're No. 19!"
While Mr. Leo is correct in pointing out that the results of the Third International Mathematics and Sciences Study (TIMSS) are cause for great concern, his outrage in his March 9 column "Hey, We're No. 19!" is largely misplaced.
In spite of the fact that he (justifiably) asserts that "when the favored, self-selected few come in last or next to last ... it is time to point the finger directly at America's schools and their methods" and that two-thirds of his column is listed under the heading "dumbed-down curricula," his venom is aimed almost exclusively at educational methodologies, and therefore at educators. Teachers are described as little more than "faddists" and "on the fringe" whose "social attitudes ... work against achievement" and "crowd out actual learning."
Although I entirely disagree with his offhanded dismissal of cooperative learning and inclusive approaches to history as merely "group therapy," my greatest objection is to his total avoidance of what is taught in favor of his emphasis on how students are taught.
The TIMSS shows that only 1% of American students take Calculus and relatively few study algebra or geometry before high school. While many teachers may be free to choose how to present a lesson, few are free to teach whatever they want. They are bound by the curriculum. The curriculum is set by school boards which are largely composed not of teachers, but administrators, parents, and concerned members of the community. In other words, by us. This failing is a shared responsibility, our responsibility.
On the one hand, Mr. Leo seems to bemoan a fall in our students' level of competence in asking "how could ... our children ... do better on IQ tests, but worse on high school math and science tests, at least in relation to other students in the world" but he on the other he admits that the situation is "worse than it look[s] because Asian nations, which do particularly well in these comparisons were not involved." The uncomfortable truth is the fact that we have never done particularly well in these comparisons. Mr. Leo is blaming teachers and their methods for a fall from a nostalgically great era of American educational superiority that never existed.
Mr. Leo further claims that "language skills of American students are said to be lower by world standards than their math and science skills." As a foreign language teacher, I am always suspicious of such comparisons. How can one quantitatively compare the relative skills of Korean, Japanese, French, Greek, Russian, German, and English speakers? Even assuming that this daunting task were accomplished, the outcome should not be surprising for one simple reason: curriculum. Studies have shown that the study of a foreign language increases proficiency in one's native language abilities. Most countries require extensive study (six years or more) of at least one foreign language (and often two or three). American high school students may study a foreign language for a year or two. Few continue for three or more years.
Popular theories of brain dominance link mathematical, linguistic, and musical abilities. We are outraged by the poor showing of our students in math, but where are the cries when boards drop courses or weaken requirements in languages and arts which communities deem as unnecessary or frills? We need not start looking at "teachers' colleges" to cast the blame. We need only to start looking in the mirror.
Milton Alan Turner