Hugh Burkhardt on international comparisons.
International comparisons in maths education continue to provide a controversial topic and have direct effects, such as periodic "back to basics" movements like the current one in Britain. Why do the Japanese do better than us? What's wrong with our schools?
International Comparisons in Mathematical Education provides a sensible perspective on a complex problem, describing the work of TIMSS (the Institute of Economic Affairs' Third International Mathematics and Science Study).
TIMSS is much more than a set of tests, though it includes test data on three groups (nine-year-olds, 13-year-olds and the last year of secondary education) across about 40 countries. The book reviews some of the major features of the results. In addition, there is a videotape study, comparing about 100 lessons in three countries (Japan, Germany and the US) and an associated case study of classroom styles.
Further, there is a curriculum analysis which studied the textbooks in many more countries; this too is highly instructive, as is an associated study of teaching styles in six countries. The reports show how the balance of topic fragmentation and overall coherence varies from country to country.
The field is vast, so it is not surprising that some areas receive scant attention - for example, the dependence of performance on socio-economic status. The data shows that most countries educate their prosperous middle-class children to about the same level - the international differences arise largely in the achievements of the less advantaged. Britain and the US do poorly in this regard.
To return to my simplistic opening question: Why do the Japanese do better than us? When you learn of the oppressive lifestyle of the Japanese teenager, it is amazing the differences are as small as they are. This is not a flippant point; learning depends on much more than what happens in school. Surveys like this can only suggest possible causes. Only by changing things in your own country can you find if the solutions proposed will really help. Ten years after the introduction of the national curriculum, we need to be reminded that guesses, however well informed, usually don't work well. It is much harder to produce large-scale improvement than people seem to believe.
Rethinking the Mathematics Curriculum looks at this problem in some depth, balancing interesting ideas with evidence drawn from a range of studies. Both research and focused curriculum development are represented in examples of curriculum reform from a nicely catholic range of countries.
As so often, the book does not address the methodology of developing a coherent programme of change that really produces progress. The implicit assumption is that, while it is very difficult to decide what changes to make, implementing your decisions is straightforward.
This is the reverse of experience, and we know why - it is impossible to change the habits of busy professionals without much more time and effort.
Hugh Burkhardt is a director of MARS and other international projects of the Shell Centre team, Nottingham University