Updated: February 4, 2013 2:13AM
Now and then, math test scores create a buzz in education.
This happened in December when test scores among fourth- and eighth-grade students showed the once-dominant U.S. still lags behind countries such as Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong, China and Japan.
Math curriculum expert Phil Daro, an author of the Common Core State Standards in math being implemented in the U.S., thinks he knows why.
In other countries, teachers move patiently and thoroughly through fewer topics, Daro told me.
“Our lessons go way faster. In other countries, they will take a topic that we spend a few weeks on and they will spend months on it. It’s not surprising they learn it better.”
Daro shared a powerful conversation he had with an education official in Singapore.
“He told me, ‘Your country is the greatest large country there is. We are the greatest small country. But you have forgotten why you are great.
“ ‘You are a country of immigrants. We are a country of immigrants. That’s why we are great.’ ”
Daro noted that in Singapore the slower classroom pace accommodates a large immigrant population. Many of their students are English learners, yet their math scores top those in the U.S.
U.S. curriculum is known for being a mile wide and only an inch deep, Daro said.
“We’re spending too little time on each topic,” he added. “It’s too superficial for kids.”
Daro’s theories are echoed by DePaul associate professor of math education Akihiko Takahashi, also an instructor in Japan.
Takahashi describes a Japanese classroom setting focused on group problem-solving and social interaction. The social element is as important as addition and subtraction. He calls it common humanity.
The term perplexed me until Daro offered an example. He recalled a classroom lesson for first-graders he observed in Singapore.
The students, separated in groups of four, had to measure objects in the room. Daro watched a group that had a brainy go-getter who was off and running to complete the task before the teacher fully explained the lesson. Two other students followed suit.
One student lagged behind the others, unsure of himself and anxious.
The others helped him. “One kid grabs his hand and starts moving it, showing him how to do it but not doing it for him,” Daro said. “A little girl put a hand on his shoulder for a calming effect.”
The slower student completed the task.
“This was a kid who in our country would be in special ed and have an aide,” Daro said.
“In the U.S. sometimes there is too much focus on individual differences,” Takahashi said. “But even a relatively slower learner can do it and the students help each other.
“The common assumption [in Japan] is that you can do it with effort.”
Sometimes it takes a group effort.
“Kids who have learned it help kids who haven’t,” Daro said. “It’s natural and built-in that they’re all going to learn it.”
Takahashi believes there is peer pressure on students in Japan to master material since the success of an entire class can depend on it. He wondered aloud whether it can be too much pressure for students.
There is pressure here, too, on teachers and students, to cover material and quickly move on.
The top students are on cruise control; others are left isolated and lost.