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Improving American Student Performance: Insights From International Tests of Academic Skills

April 05, 2012 | Comments: 0 | Views: 144

Our rapidly changing, technology-driven world has dramatically altered the educational needs of American students. Educational theories and practices that were designed for previous generations who would grow up to work in factories, mines, shops and farms, are inadequate for a modern, technologically driven and rapidly changing world.

There is much evidence that American schools are not producing students who can compete successfully with students in other developed nations. On international tests of academic skills, for example, American students consistently perform either at or well below average.

By identifying the educational theories and methods used by nations who consistently perform high on these tests, which include the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), we can gain insight into the reasons why American students are not matching the performance level of their international peers.

On the most recent (2007) TIMSS math tests, American students scored in the bottom half of all nations taking the tests, well below students in Asian countries like Japan, Korea, Singapore, Chinese Taipei, and Hong Kong. On the math portion of the PISA, American students also consistently ranked in the bottom half of nations while Canada, Japan, Korea, Singapore and New Zealand consistently rank in the top ten. A historical review of performance on the PISA;reading tests showed that while American students' scores changed very little over time,students in Singapore and Japan improved dramatically.

One thing that international testing has made clear is that the amount of money a country spends on their educational system doesn't determine how well students perform. On the PISA assessments, for example, non-high income economies like Shanghai, China, New Zealand and Finland scored in the top tier while high-income economies like Israel, Austria,and Luxembourg scored much lower. The PISA assessment concluded that the amount of dollars spent on education was less of a factor in students' educational outcome than the educational theories and practices of the nation.

American educational practices are based on Behaviorism, an early 20th century theory that denied the existence of cognitive skills and claimed that learning should be based on the memorization of facts and the repetition of procedures. Educational practices and theories in high-performing nations, on the other hand, focus on developing high-level cognitive skills like logic, reasoning ability and problem solving.

The TIMSS compared teaching methods in the U.S., a low-performing country, with educational methods in Japan, a high performing country. TIMSS reviewers noted that Japanese teachers focused on helping students master a sequential set of concepts, engaged students in problem solving activities, and emphasized analytical reasoning and critical thinking. American teachers, on the other hand, focused on having students memorize facts and practice procedures.

A study by the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation group in 2007 came to a similar conclusion when they compared American teaching methods to teaching practices in Korea, a country that consistently performs in the top tier on international tests. The authors noted that Korean teachers focused on processes instead of products and worked to foster students' thinking abilities and understanding of concepts. American teachers focused on learning facts and practicing procedures.

It seems clear that helping American students develop high-level cognitive and academic skills will require a new approach to education: focusing on the systematic mastery of concepts and the development of higher level cognitive skills. If the U.S. can accomplish this task then there is no reason that American students could not compete successfully with their international counterparts.

For more information on the TIMSS or the PISA see (TIMSS) (PISA)

For more information on brain based education visit or refer to "Samurai Teacher: A Practical Guide to Brain Based Education;" available at

Dr. Michelle MacAlpine is a cognitive developmental neuroscientist in private practice at Brain Training Associates in Plano, Texas, offering private consulting and private cognitive therapy for children and adults as well as seminars for general and professional audiences.

Source: EzineArticles
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