National school standards
Cross-national comparisons, along with longitudinal studies and evaluations of large-scale interventions, remain the rare exception in the educational research literature. For that reason alone, the article by Gilbert A. Valverde and William H. Schmidt (“Refocusing U.S. Math and Science Education,” Issues, Winter 1997-98) on the lessons to be learned from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) should command the attention of all who worry about U.S. math and science education or, more precisely, the preparation of our children for the 21st-century workplace.
Applauding the design and execution of TIMSS, however, does not ensure the utility of its lessons for education reform. The TIMSS snapshot of teaching, curriculum, textbooks, and student learning in 1995 measures key components of science and math education, not the performance of systems trying to integrate, or merely cope with, all the factors that influence teaching and learning.
Valverde and Schmidt offer inferences about what underlies the declining achievement of U.S. students relative to their age peers over the course of formal education. That our students lag those in other countries is no revelation: Students learn what those with dubious preparation and content knowledge, using materials of perfunctory content in a rigidly structured school environment, teach.
The authors’ explanation strikes at the heart of what is sacrosanctly embodied in 16,000 school districts: local control. Our interpretation is that the slippage in student achievement from grade 4 to 12 documented in TIMSS is a result of local decisionmaking, reinforced by textbook publishers’ marketing strategies that appeal to the largest number of districts by bloating topical content. This unfocused curriculum reflects unfocused systems of education that have the autonomy to make choices to the detriment of student learning.
TIMSS suggests that local control is a failed experiment. The antidote? National content standards. In the words of Valverde and Schmidt, “when well defined, a `high standards for all students’ approach can help guide policymakers in ensuring access to the resources necessary to help underprivileged schoolchildren meet these standards. In fact, this is a common justification for the `high standards for all’ approach in many TIMSS countries.”It is also the approach in some districts across America-those conducting National Science Foundation-sponsored systemwide reform reaching from resources to infrastructure to accountability for student learning.
The TIMSS results illuminate the legacy of decentralized schooling in the United States. The spending of ninety-four cents of every dollar for K-12 education is market-driven by a quirky alliance of external forces (textbook publishers and colleges of education) and internal (district and school) sovereignty over what is “the best for my kids”; choices virtually uninformed by research, evaluation, and proven innovations in educational practice.
A nation of 16,000 school districts can choose to act democratically and differently. We need not consign our children to academic underachievement and a work life of unfulfilled potential. Without change in the teaching and learning of mathematics and science, U.S. children (and not just the underprivileged ones) will become the economic underclass of the 21st-century global economy.
TIMSS is not about educational systems alone. It is about how local communities can act in the national interest to meet national expectations in the education of all its children.
No funds for ocean power
As William H. Avery and Walter G. Berl note in “Solar Energy from the Tropical Oceans” (Issues, Winter 1997-98), the Department of Energy (DOE) is no longer pursuing ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC) research and development. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was a general expectation that OTEC could assist in addressing concerns about long-term energy availability. Large projects and high funding levels from the private and public sectors were envisioned but did not materialize.
DOE supported construction and validation testing of small-scale OTEC systems, and they have provided a technical data base sufficient to assist industry in judging where and when the technology could be commercialized. However, unlike their approach to other renewable technologies, industry leaders have not shown a willingness to make a substantial financial commitment to OTEC, and industry has not formed the supporting infrastructure necessary for commercial development.
In view of the above considerations and the prioritization required to meet budget constraints, DOE has not proposed funding for OTEC in recent years.