Headlines Around the World TIMSS 2015 Edition

Generating a cascade of headlines, the results of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study were released this week. As in the past, Asian countries dominated the rankings.  The press release noted:

“Singapore, Hong Kong SAR, Korea, Chinese Taipei, and Japan continue outperforming all participating countries in mathematics at the fourth and eighth grades, maintaining a 20 year edge according to results released today from TIMSS”

For the most part, headlines highlighted whether a particular country did well or poorly, often with a particular focus on mathematics performance.  The headlines in Australia were especially gloomy, describing the country’s results as “flatlining” (Australian student performance flatlining, Teacher Magazine), “embarrassing” (Australian maths results embarrass minister, 9 News), and as a “wake-up call” (‘Wake-up call’ as Aussie kids ‘outgunned’ in maths by US, Canada, England Financial Review). Finland accustomed to more positive news also did not fare so well.  While google translate left much to be desired, the general tenor of the article in Helsingin Uutiset seemed clear: “the results of the boys have deteriorated, and the girls have to wedge the boys over in all the studied areas.”

Occasionally, headlines did not mention the outcomes in Asian countries and instead reported on performance related to closer neighbors (Aftenposten in Norway for example noting Norwegian 5th-graders the best in the Nordic countries in mathematics while the BBC pointed out Northern Ireland primary pupils highest achieving in Europe in maths tests).  In some cases, sources reported on conflicting aspects of a country’s performance. In South Africa, for example, allAfrica emphasized the positive (South Africa: Minister Welcomes Improvements in TIMSS Study), while News24 did not (SA pupils among lowest 5 in the world in maths, science).  In the United States, the Wall Street Journal provided the positive spin (U.S. Students Score Higher Than Average on International Math Test); the Washington Post highlighted the negative (U.S. students still lag many Asian peers on international math and science exam); and the Christian Science Monitor covered both sides (US students gain a bit on math, but science scores still lag Asia).

Only in a few cases did headlines point to some of the other information available in the results (such as news on gender gaps, homework, and students’ confidence like those reported on by TES: Timss: England’s pupils do less homework and seven other things we learned from today’s study). The journal Science, however, focused on a new development in TIMSS 2015 by highlighting the overall poor performance of “advanced” high school students taking the most challenging math and science classes.  In Are the best students really that advanced? Science reported that with the exception of Russian students and some Slovenian students these “advanced” students in the nine countries “performed progressively worse as they moved from elementary to middle to high school.”  Notably that article also pointed out that “The East Asian students did not participate in the TIMSS Advanced (assessment) because it was seen as conflicting with the high-stakes final exam that determines university placement in those countries. So the TIMSS sheds no light on their performance across their entire school careers.” With such poor results and limited participation on the new test but a trend toward overall improvements on the more familiar tests, questions about teaching to the test are likely to be asked.  Further questions may come with the release of the results of the latest round of PISA tests on “PISA Day”, next Tuesday, December 6th (and I’ll share a scan of the PISA headlines next week both here and on internationalednews.com)

Thomas Hatch


A sampling of TIMSS results headlines:


Australian student performance flatlining, Teacher Magazine,

Aust maths results embarrass minister, 9 News

‘Wake-up call’ as Aussie kids ‘outgunned’ in maths by US, Canada, England
Financial Review


English pupils improve results in international maths and science exams, The Guardian


Tytöt menivät poikien ohi jo matikassakin – 4.-luokkalaisten taidot heikkenevät Suomessa, Helsingin Uutiset


French students rank last in EU for maths, study finds, France24


Study: German students’ mathematics achievement declines


Ireland ranks 15th in global league table for maths, science, Irish Times

GDP would be boosted by 2.3 per cent if universal basic skill levels were achieved


Japanese students’ average scores rise in global math, science tests, The Mainichi


Moroccan Math and Science Education Struggling, But Improving: Survey, Morocco World News

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland primary pupils highest achieving in Europe in maths tests, BBC


Norwegian 5th-graders the best in the Nordic countries in mathematics, Aftenposten

New Zealand

New Zealand pupils below average in maths results – TIMSS, New Zealand Herald


Singapore students top global achievement test in mathematics and science, Straits Times

South Africa

South Africa: Minister Welcomes Improvements in TIMSS Study, allAfrica

SA pupils among lowest 5 in the world in maths, science,  News24


UAE pupils improve maths and science skills, global study shows, The National

United States

U.S. students still lag many Asian peers on international math and science exam, Washington Post

U.S. Students Score Higher Than Average on International Math Test, Students in some Asian nations excel; U.S. students improve

 Wall Street Journal

US students gain a bit on math, science scores but still lag Asia, Christian Science Monitor

The problem and possibilities of improvement and “innovation” in education (Singapore and Malaysia edition)

The first problem with innovation is that it is hard to define. It is one of those, “you’ll know it when you see it” kinds of things.  As a consequence, almost any “new” practice, program, resource, or idea that departs from convention may appear “innovative” to some.  Yet for others, only the most revolutionary, transformative, or disruptive practices or materials deserve to be called “innovative.”  A shift from thinking of “innovations” as a singular category –  something is either “innovative” or it’s not – to thinking about the “symptoms” of innovation provides one way to address this definitional ambiguity.  (The philosopher Nelson Goodman, one of Noam Chomsky’s teachers, took this approach when discussing the definition of “art.”)  Symptoms of innovation include the extent to which something departs from convention as well as the extent to which it changes or transforms related activities. For example, even “smart” phones still retain some of the features of the land-lines that preceded them, but their mobility and wireless connectivity are new and make possible all kinds of activities (texting, surfing the internet, using apps etc.) that have changed the ways people behave and interact.  Other symptoms might include the extent to which something is viewed as innovative within a particular context (a region or industry) or as cutting across contexts.  From this perspective, mobile phones appear to be quite innovative as they have spread and contributed to changes in behaviors and activity across international contexts.  At the same time, technologies like whiteboards that seem commonplace in classrooms in many countries nowadays may still seem innovative in parts of the world where they are just being introduced.  In either case, the extent to which these new technologies have or might change behaviors and activities remains to be debated.

In education, many different practices, programs, and school models have been hailed as “innovative” in different times.  Nonetheless, substantial departures from conventional classroom practices and activities rarely seem to take hold across schools and contexts (as Larry Cuban continues to examine when it comes to technology and computer use in the classroom). In order to explore some of these “issues of innovation” and the challenges and possibilities for improving conventional educational practices, I am working with colleagues Deirdre Faughey, Jordan Carson, and Sarah van den Berg to look at what educators consider “innovative” both inside conventional school systems as well as outside (in alternative schools, after school programs, tutoring programs, museums, online activities etc.); and I’m looking at what’s “innovative” in both developed and developing education systems (such as those in New York City, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Johannesburg). Theoretically these different educational settings should create different opportunities for, and perhaps different kinds of, innovations. Ideally, looking at how innovative efforts evolve in different contexts will provide some clues about what it really takes to transform conventional learning opportunities so that all students, from all backgrounds can be successful.  (For a look at some initial descriptions of efforts to improve different aspects of education, see posts on Citizen Schools, New Visions, the iZone, the Millennium Villages Project in Africa, and the India School Leadership Institute.)

Over the next few months, I will be reporting on what I learned when I visited and talked with colleagues in Singapore and Malaysia about recent efforts to improve their educational systems and what might be “innovative” in education in each context. The education systems in Singapore and Malaysia are particularly interesting because they are geographic neighbors with some shared history and culture.  Education systems in both countries are quite centralized, and both have introduced a number of initiatives to change and improve their performance.  Nonetheless, their education systems are at very different stages of development. Singapore continues to be at the top or near the top on comparative tests like PISA and TIMMS, while Malaysia ranks below more than fifty other countries in reading, mathematics, and science. Furthermore, while Malaysia has substantially increased enrollment rates at every level of schooling, it is in the midst of increasing compulsory schooling from six to eleven years, and it is still working to increase enrollments in upper secondary education which stood at 82% in 2011.

Twin Towers, Kuala Lumpur

Twin Towers, Kuala Lumpur

What struck me most, however, in my visits, were the differences in where efforts to produce more innovative learning opportunities are taking place.  What I found in Malaysia, for example, reminded me in some ways of what I see in New York City: the growth of alternative schools, after school programs, and other educational opportunities created by independent groups and individuals operating outside the public school system. Those I talked to about innovation in Kuala Lumpur pointed to a number of for-profit and not-for-profit efforts to create private schools and to provide workshops, camps, and other learning opportunities outside the regular school day. Among private schools, the alternatives to government-run public schools include international schools often connected to or resembling those operating in the US and elsewhere and some newer international schools established by Malaysian private universities like Taylors’ University and Sunway University. There are also new schools associated with alternative school networks in the US like Acton Academy as well as a growing homeschooling movement.  Outside the school day, organizations and collaborative like Edunation, Arus Academy, Tandemic, and EnglishJer have sprouted to address what their members see as gaps or problems with the Malaysian education system.

At the same time, the government in Malaysia has continued efforts to ensure all children have access to education while also launching a variety of initiatives to increase the quality of education. Recent initiatives have focused on integrating Higher Order Thinking Skills into the curriculum, establishing a technological infrastructure in all schools (including internet connectivity, computers/computer labs, and a virtual learning environment), and programs to establish “Trust Schools” (modeled after the academies in England or what those in the US would consider charter schools).  Often, the Ministry of Education, with limited resources, finds a contractor to lead these initiatives, but then these contractors have to find and develop the means themselves to roll their work out across large numbers of teachers and schools.



In contrast, when I asked about innovation in Singapore, those I talked to generally pointed to major initiatives launched by the government as part of continuing efforts to improve and change the education system. These include efforts to focus on the development of 21st Century skills amongst all students and to integrating technology productively into teaching (as part of Singapore’s Fourth Master Plan for technology integration). These efforts reflect what colleagues in Singapore have called a “centralized decentralized” approach to create opportunities for schools and teachers to develop innovative practices, which if effective, can then be scaled up across the system. This approach included the creation of a set of Future Schools in 2007 that experimented with different approaches to using technology and that could serve as models or prototypes that could inspire other schools to change their instructional practices. In addition, in 2011 the Ministry of Education established Edulab which now provides support for educators to develop new practices and resources and creates opportunities to share those practices and resources across teachers and schools.

There are numerous educational opportunities outside the regular school classroom in Singapore, but those generally connect to and complement the work going on in the government-run schools rather than serving as independent educational alternatives.  Educational programs established outside the public schools in Singapore include workshops and field trips organized by cultural institutions such as the Singapore Discovery Center and the National Gallery of Singapore.  These educational opportunities serve as “Learning Journeys” that schools are required to offer students as part of Singapore’s commitment to integrating National Education into the curriculum.  The opportunities for learning after school and on weekends are also dominated by tutoring offered by a host of individuals and “tuition centers”.  Despite the concerns of the Singaporean government and many educators and parents, tutoring has grown into a 1.1 billion dollar industry (almost double the $650 million spent on tutoring in 2004) with 600 different tuition centers registered with the Ministry of Education (up from 500 in 2011).  Tuition centers focus primarily on preparing students for the national exams that students in Singapore take at the end of primary  and upper secondary school and before admission to university; but some centers try to distinguish themselves with their own educational approaches and some aim to help students develop skills that go beyond those emphasized in the tests.

Singapore and Malaysia present very different contexts for developing new educational opportunities for students, but both have to contend with the challenges of figuring out which new practices and programs might work and what kinds of mechanisms will help educators and schools to build on any successes. In the next few weeks, I will be following up on these initial impressions with closer looks at the evolution of some of the programs and organizations that are working to improve the educational opportunities in each of these systems.

— Thomas Hatch


Recent Observations on Finnish Education from Elizabeth Green

This post can also be found on International Education News

This past week Elizabeth Green, Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Chalkbeat, shared a number of tweets from a recent visit to schools and day care centers in Finland.  She made telling observations, noting students’ use of slippers and the raised tables in daycares that make it easier for teachers to “get on students’ level”, that hint at the Finnish attention to detail and design.  She also pointed to key aspects of the Finnish education system that connected to some of the experiences that I had when spending a month in Finland with my family 2 years ago.  At that time, two of my daughters spent the end of the school year in Finnish classrooms, and my wife, Karen Hammerness, and I got to talk with a number of policymakers, educators, and researchers.  As Green indicates in tweets showing a graphic of the new Finnish Core Curriculum and noting that schools were given considerable time to prepare for implementation, the Finnish approach to developing a coherent national curriculum is totally different from the development of the Common Core in the US. While Green points to teachers who generally support the new Finnish Core Curriculum, the roll-out has included controversy over the extent to which the new curriculum emphasizes interdisciplinary work.  Interestingly, Green also found that some teachers also dislike an emphasis on learning to code, an emphasis which seems to be embraced in many quarters in the US. Nonetheless, Green cited a new teacher gushing about her lesson plan as one of the best moments of a visit to a school as well as a teacher who commented that even with a “core” curriculum she still felt considerable autonomy.  We found that same kind of enthusiasm and sense of autonomy among teachers again and again, perhaps reflecting the extensive preparation and support that new teachers in Finland receive.  At the same time, during my visit, it seemed that autonomy also depends on a level of interdependence and collective commitment that often goes unmentioned. Green’s comment that she “Never considered proximity to Russia, geographic and cultural, when considering Finnish educational success” struck a chord with me as well.  The pressure and urgency that might have contributed to a commitment to centralize and transform the Finnish education system in the 1970’s (as Pasi Sahlberg describes in Finnish Lessons) came through to me when a Finnish educator told me that she grew up near the border in Finland knowing that Soviet tanks could be in her front yard in twenty minutes…

— Tom Hatch




Common ground for reducing school suspensions/expulsions?

These occasional posts reflect on issues I’m encountering in my own research and teaching and in the educational experiences of my three daughters. Some of those posts come from Internationalednews.com and others come from a current research project looking at the evolution of promising improvement efforts in New York City as well as other parts of the world.

Recent debates over school discipline in the United States have centered on whether or not districts/schools should eliminate suspensions. The latest AEI Express from Rick Hess presents two different views on the subject. Max Eden, from the Manhattan Institute, argues that unilateral elimination of suspensions, while well-intentioned, may do more harm than good. Hailly Korman, from Bellweather Education Partners, makes the case that there are effective ways to reduce suspensions in general and address racial inequities in suspensions as well. All their points deserve thoughtful examination, but it is fascinating to see Eden, a self-described “conservative” side with the President of the New York City Teacher’s union, Michael Mulgrew. Mulgrew criticized Bill DeBlasio, the Mayor of New York City, for imposing a unilateral ban on suspensions in kindergarten through 2nd grade. As Eden put it: “Mulgrew wouldn’t have broken so publicly with the man he helped to elect if he didn’t have a good reason” (although couldn’t that reason include unwavering support for the teachers Mulgrew represents to make their own decisions whatever the issue?). Korman, for her part, highlights that “The vast majority of incidents leading up to suspension or expulsion are non-serious or non-violent infractions, disruptions, and misbehaviors.” Notably, the decisions about whether and when to suspend students for these minor infractions are often subjective and end up disproportionately affecting African-American, Latino and Native American students, especially boys. One can imagine that both Eden and Korman might agree (as well as others they cite including researchers like Robin Lake and school leaders like Nancy Hanks) with efforts that focus attention on eliminating suspension/expulsion for minor infractions and establishing clearer criteria that limit subjectivity and bias. As Korman puts it, we all need “a more robust toolkit to respond to disruptions and frustrations” that provides a safe and constructive learning environment for all.

Thomas Hatch


The center column will include occasional blog posts reflecting on issues I’m encountering in my own research and teaching and my own experiences as a parent with three daughters engaged in education both inside and outside the US. Some of those posts come from Internationalednews.com and others come from a current research project looking at the evolution of promising improvement efforts in New York City as well as other parts of the world.