"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Friday, March 22, 2013

One Should Not Place All Bets on Curriculum

Tom Loveless, a Senior Fellow at the Brown Center on Education Policy, recently published a study entitled "HOW WELL ARE AMERICAN STUDENTS LEARNING? With sections on the latest  international tests, tracking and ability grouping, and advanced math in 8th grade."
To read the entire report, visit "How Well Are American Students Learning?"
The first part of this study focuses on international scores in reading, math and science exams. Particular attention is given to the top performing countries, for example, in math. With these countries performing so well, others have tried to copy what they think works. Oftentimes, this copying places great emphasis on the curriculum. Summarized in a table, Loveless provides the following observation:

Table downloaded from "How Well Are American Students Learning?"

The following is Loveless' conclusion:
What should we make of this? In 1995, six high achieving nations were described as “A+” to spur the U.S. towards greater math achievement. Their math curriculums were held up as ideals. And yet, since 1995, the U.S. gain of 17 points in eighth-grade mathematics is only exceeded by one A+ nation, Korea, and matched by another, Hong Kong. The other four A+ countries made less progress than the U.S. So in terms of gains, the U.S. should not look to the A+ countries for guidance. That said, five of the six A+ countries continue to lead the world in eighth-grade math achievement, and they continue to score significantly higher than the U.S. 
The divergence of gain scores and status scores illustrates a problem that will be addressed in both remaining parts of this report. The tendency is for observers, when test scores are released, to zero in on the top performers, to ask what it is that the leading nations are doing, and then to urge the rest of the world to do those things. That response is understandable—but it is also potentially misleading. Causality is difficult to determine from cross-sectional data. Curriculum undoubtedly plays a role, but much more work needs to be done identifying potential curriculum effects in international data and testing well-formulated hypotheses with longitudinal models. Ideally, randomized trials would be conducted on the best curriculum programs, to tease out unobserved influences on learning. Those influences include a culture that places great value on academic success, parenting practices that promote achievement, and peers who award status based on working hard at school. They surely play a part in why some nations are “A+” while others only aspire to be.
I particularly like the last two sentences Loveless wrote above. It is not necessarily the curriculum....


  1. Here's an important paper on improving developing countries public education: