Global education rankings will be big news again tomorrow with the publication of the latest Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study.
The Timss report will trigger headlines about the comparative performance of pupils in 64 countries around the world.
The four-yearly study – a rival to the perhaps better-known Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) –- focuses on the performance of 10- and 14-year-olds in maths and science.
Inevitably, much of the media attention is likely to centre on the headline rankings – which countries are top, who is up and who is down.
But the man in charge of the study, Dirk Hastedt, believes that would be a mistake.
“What I see is that people look at these rankings and they are, in my opinion, the least informative part of all these studies and the least helpful to improve your system," he tells Tes.
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“The analysis goes more in-depth and looks at different issues. We look at boys' and girls' education. Where do we have a problem? Is there something different than other countries? How are other systems dealing with this issue?
"This is something that helps the education system – more in-depth analysis and using all the additional information that is in the data.”
Dr Hastedt is executive director of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), which has been running Timss since its first study in 1995, in collaboration with Boston College.
He has been in the game for a while. Indeed, the IEA was his very first job. He got a position as a programmer during his mathematics degree at the University of Hamburg, Germany, in September 1989, and hasn't left the organisation since.
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What he particularly loves about his job, he tells Tes, is that by working in education research, he can employ statistics to make the world a better place.
“The common good – that’s what I really like," he says. "So I don’t work in statistics to sell more alcohol or something, but I do something with a meaning.”
With tomorrow’s publication, Timss will have amounted to 24 years of education research.
The data on students’ performance in maths and science in grade four and grade eight – as the age groups are known internationally – is just part of the story.
Timss collects a wealth of other data from students’ and teachers’ questionnaires and gives an insight into the curriculum taught in each country, the school climate (touching on bullying, for example) and teacher factors such as qualifications and job satisfaction.
But how are education systems meant to use all this data?
Timss and Pisa shock
Dr Hastedt offers the example of his native Germany, which was hit by a double whammy of Timss and Pisa shocks in the late Nineties and early Noughties.
“In Germany, there was always this view: Germany has an excellent education system – we should continue as it is," he says.
"And after Timss 1995, there was a Timss shock in 1996-97 and later on a Pisa shock in 2001, when they realised: 'Oh, comparing internationally, we are not ahead of everyone else, but we are rather somewhere in the middle and we have quite a number of weaknesses.'
“For policymakers, it was a wake-up call, to see that we need to work on our education system and improve it.”
Dr Hastedt also says that the curriculum analysis could offer precious insight on what each education system expects from its own students.
“We had countries already in the first stage when they did this curriculum analysis that compared their curriculum against other countries’ curriculum and they realised that what they expected from the students was much lower than what other countries expected, and that for them was important to notice," he explains.
“There was an example in reading, where in one country, at the end of grade four, students should be able to read a text of about 100 words with some kind of understanding. And, of course, that was much lower than what most other countries prescribe in their curriculum.”
A quarter of a century of progress
Hastedt continues: “When we released the Timss 2015 results, what we saw there was a lot of improvement in education around the world.
“And compared to 1995, there was much more gender parity – so in 1995 boys were ahead of girls in mathematics and in most, if not all, the countries. That has changed a lot.”
But while the nearly half-century covered by Timss shows a lot of progress, things are not quite there yet, especially where the gender gap is concerned.
In the Timss 2015 data, it was found that in grade four girls did as well as boys in maths, but the gender gap widened in grade eight both in terms of achievement and confidence.
For Dr Hadstedt, who has three daughters, Helen, Hannah and Emily, this is a very important topic.
He says: “It says something about society if you tell girls that mathematics and physics are a difficult subject and you give role models as being mostly males. Then girls won’t find their role in there, and that makes a huge difference.”
The same goes for teachers, he adds. Timss, which collects data also from teachers on a number of topics, has found that male maths teachers are generally far more confident than female maths teachers.
“We need to think about the teachers, and especially female teachers, and raise their self-confidence in teaching these subjects,” Dr Hastedt says. “That, I think, will make a huge impact also on how students, especially girls, see some of these subjects.”
A passion for maths
But self-confidence is not the whole story – sometimes you need passion, too. And Dr Hastedt has that in spades, especially for mathematics. In 2015, he completed a PhD at the University of Vienna on the subject “mathematics achievement of immigrant students”.
He says: “I love maths, I love numbers…it’s a wonderful art.
“I also love to do mathematics with my daughters, and I ask them what they do in class and sometimes I see that teachers are teaching them well, but sometimes they don’t highlight the beauty of the subject to them.
“So I tell them stories about the young life of Gauss, or how the Egyptians used the theorem of Pythagoras. Just to put a little bit of meaning on what we can do with mathematics. I tried to bring that to my kids and engage them and show them how beautiful maths is.”
The results of Timss 2019 will be revealed tomorrow. IEA also runs the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls) and has recently launched another study, Responses to Educational Disruption Survey (Reds), which is looking into how countries and education systems have dealt with the Covid crisis