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Why Are Chicago-Area Students Tops in the World in Math and Science?


Curriculum CenterA group of Chicago school superintendents set out to make their students First in the World in science and math. Five years and $1 million later, the educators have established a solid research base to help them make decisions for improving math and science curriculum and instruction.

In the summer of 1995, a small study group of school administrators found themselves thrown together in a workshop to fulfill administrative re-certification requirements. Something was different about this group, though -- people were unusually cohesive.

"The group really jelled," said Paul L. Kimmelman, superintendent of West Northfield School District No. 31. He suggested that the group continue to meet. The members agreed. They chose to focus on the science and math portion of the Federal Goals 2000 legislation because their school districts assigned those subjects high priority.

Overall, U.S. students perform well on standardized math and science tests in the fourth grade and compare favorably with students of other nations. Performance declines in middle school and drops even lower in high school, however. U.S. students rank below average in eighth grade and almost last by 12th grade, according the to the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).


The study group expanded First in the World to include other school districts located along the north shore of Lake Michigan, where schools are known for their academic excellence. The school districts are small, suburban, 79-percent white, and affluent.

The group initially formed a consortium of 20 school districts (two eventually dropped out) -- large enough to allow the data compiled to be statistically significant. The administrators soon discovered that there was little research to confirm whether their students were world-class performers in science and math. That led the consortium to the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), considered one of the most comprehensive, rigorous international assessments of student achievement in science and math, Kimmelman said. Students in grades 4, 8, and 12 were tested in science and math, and their scores compared with students in 41 of the highest-achieving countries in the world.

"The purpose of the consortium isn't just to do well on the TIMSS," Kimmelman told Education World. "It is to improve instruction, curriculum, and practices." The teachers' goals are to collaborate across the school districts and look at their teaching practices more critically.

Teachers bought into the project, forming learning networks that allowed them to share information outside their schools or districts. Through the networks, teachers used information gathered from TIMSS to analyze district curricula and discuss them with other teachers in other districts.

The consortium had help with the project. The educators sought the support of Richard W. Riley, U.S. Secretary of Education; local and state officials; and the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory (NCREL).


In May 1996, consortium students took the TIMSS. The results were impressive. Only students in Singapore outperformed fourth and eighth graders in math. The eighth-grade students performed in the top category in science. The fourth-grade results were even higher. The students placed first in the world in science. Students in grade 12 also did well; only three other nations scored higher in both science and math.

The same grade-4 students took the test as seventh graders in the TIMSS-Repeat, administered in 2000. The results, to be released this winter, will provide additional insight, especially if scores don't show the decline typical for American students of that age.

Consortium students significantly outdistanced their U.S. peers in 1996. The nation's students ranked 28th in math, slightly below the international average, and 17th in science, slightly above the international average. The consortium set out to find out why its students did so well.

Although many factors affect student achievement, Kimmelman believes one reason for the high math scores is that the majority of consortium students are exposed to higher-level math early. Many complete algebra and some geometry by the time they finish eighth grade.


Although the students performed very well on the TIMSS, the educators wanted to learn whether they could raise the bar if instruction improved. They also wanted to know why math and science scores of older students decline and why consortium students significantly outdistanced their U.S. peers in 1996. The TIMSS results weren't used as a scorecard but as a basis for greater understanding about the differences in instructional practices.

The consortium got help in making sense of the TIMSS data from Blase E. Masini, a research associate with NCREL. Masini found that consortium students at all grade levels had the most difficulty with problem solving. Although they could do the "parts" of the problem correctly, they couldn't connect those parts to find the solution of more complex problems, he said.

NCREL analyses of TIMSS math scores; a Council of Chief State School Officers study, "Improving Mathematics Education Using Results from NAEP and TIMSS"; and math-score data from an International Activities Program of the National Center for Education Statistics study all revealed several similar differences in instruction practices.

  • U.S. teachers repeat the same topic more than Japanese teachers do. For example, U.S. students learn about fractions in the fourth grade and again in the fifth and sixth grades. Japanese grade 8 teachers spend about 67 percent of their classroom time teaching four areas in math; U.S. teachers cover about 16 to 18 topics, with one topic accounting for only 8 percent of their time.
  • U.S. and Japanese instruction goals differ. In the United States, teachers demonstrate how to solve a math problem, and students copy the procedure. In Japan, students are asked to create their own solutions instead of copying. Teachers focus on helping students achieve higher-level understanding of math concepts.
  • U.S. students are weak in measuring skills Students aren't given enough opportunities to practice measuring with instruments, so they do poorly on problems that require unit conversions, calculations of volume and circumference, and estimation of measurements
  • Well-prepared teachers make a difference. Students whose teachers majored or minored in math did better on the test. Teacher knowledge must be greater than merely knowing how to demonstrate routine procedures if students are to learn how to solve novel problems. Students of teachers who have a deeper understanding of problem solving perform better.
  • U.S. lessons are less coherent. Japanese teachers are more likely to explain the connection between different parts of the same lesson. U.S. lessons often fail to connect to other math problems.
  • Teachers collaborate more in Japan. U.S. teachers do not share or collaborate with colleagues as frequently as Asian teachers do. "They [Asian teachers] meet every day and develop their lesson plans, which can be a piece of artwork for teachers," Kimmelman said.
"In general, American teaching is very isolated," Kimmelman told Education World. "Teachers in America walk into their classes at 8 a.m. and leave at 3 p.m. [They have] little time to reflect about their work with their peers."


Why might students at the North Shore Chicago schools do better than their American peers? One thing is certain -- money powers student achievement. The consortium school districts can afford to pay more for public education. The per student expenditure for consortium schools -- $8,922 -- is about 50 percent more than the Illinois average of $5,922. The member schools also received $1 million in three federal grants.

Money shouldn't overshadow the consortium's achievement, said NCREL's Masini. In recent study, "What Makes the Difference? Accounting for the Performance of the First in the World Consortium," Masini wrote that although affluence is a factor in the early grades, instruction and curriculum become more important for students in grades 8 to 12.


The superintendents could have sat back on their laurels, said Gina Burkhardt, executive director of NCREL. Being good wasn't good enough for Kimmelman and the others, though. Kimmelman wanted consortium students to be world-class achievers in science and math, which prompted the name First in the World.

Competing against nations with strong math and science achievement requires three elements: strong leadership, commitment, and financial resources. The consortium had all three, Burkhardt explained.

"It takes time and dollars," added Burkhardt. Most of all, she said, it takes the kind of leadership Kimmelman demonstrated. He never wavered in his commitment when others challenged the project.

"Kimmelman deserves a lot of credit for staying the course," Burkhardt emphasized. That wasn't always easy when he was challenged for wanting the high-performing schools to perform even better, she noted.

The teachers also deserve a lot of credit for their desire to become better teachers. They met faithfully each month as part of the consortium's teacher learning networks, Burkhardt told Education World. "The consortium is a model for educators," she explained. "In the global picture, they have an absolute model of research. Others go for the flavor-of-the-month and base decisions on anecdotal information and don't use the research that is available."

For more information about the First in the World Consortium, contact Dr. Paul L. Kimmelman at [email protected].

Diane Weaver Dunne
Education World®
Copyright © 2000 Education World


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