Commentary | Education

Lessons—Weighing Students’ Skills and Attitudes

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


Weighing students’ skills and attitudes

By Richard Rothstein

Americans’ low math and science scores are well known. On the 1999 international math and science survey, our eighth graders scored below their peers in almost every other industrial nation that took part.

Students in Japan and Korea ranked near the top. In math, average American eighth graders would have scored below the 25th percentile in Japan or Korea.

But the study also asked students if they liked math and science, thought it important and would want a job using these skills. Here, Japanese and Koreans scored at the very bottom. Only 9 percent of their eighth graders had positive attitudes toward math; only 10 percent felt positively about science.

In the United States, 35 percent felt positively about math and 32 percent about science, more than in almost every other industrial nation.

For 20 years, Americans have tried to remake schools, partly to be more like high-scoring East Asians. A Reagan administration report, “A Nation at Risk,” warned in 1983 that America would soon lose its competitive edge to countries with superior schools, like Japan and Korea. Since then, our graduation requirements have been raised, testing has been increased, with severe penalties for failure, and instructional time has grown.

Meanwhile, schools in Japan and Korea have been trying to copy ours. Across East Asia, leaders are trying to reform education so students will know fewer facts and spend less time preparing for tests but, like Americans, be more willing to take risks and more creative in applying what they know.

              The Japanese and Koreans also believe that economic survival demands education reform. Jaekyung Lee, a University of Maine professor who studies schools in his native Korea, said Korean employers realized that disciplined and highly skilled workers were not what they needed most. Instead, companies had to develop new products for new markets, and for that, workers unafraid to question authority or take initiative were essential.

A Korean presidential commission in 1994 demanded reform, much like President Ronald Reagan’s group a decade before. The Korean commission proposed a de-emphasis of testing, more electives that depart from standardized curriculums and college admissions based more on recommendations and overall high school records than on standardized tests.

In Japan, too, policy makers are trying to relax standards. Recently, the government required new textbooks to reduce content by 30 percent so study time could be cut to encourage nonacademic leisure. And Saturday school has been dropped. Officials hope that with less textbook material to cover, teachers will encourage more student inquiry and initiative.

Teiichi Sato, director of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science and a former deputy minister of education, argues that the 21st-century economy requires such reforms. He says Japanese education, emphasizing obedience and standards, is ill-suited to help students adapt easily to the rapid change that characterizes the new economy.

Japanese reform, Mr. Sato said in a recent speech, should inspire “zest for living,” a trait he thinks characteristic of Americans but not of his own students. He defined it as “development of abilities to uncover issues, to study and think alone, reach judgments independently and to act and solve problems well.”

Japanese officials, Mr. Sato said, no longer attach great importance to students’ high rankings on international tests because the exams measure skills valued by the old education system, not the new. A zest for living cannot develop, he added, “under  the former style of education in which students simply acquired as much knowledge as possible.”

In Korea, as in the United States, the biggest bar to reform is poor teacher training. Dr. Lee said it was hard for Koreans to teach differently from the way they were trained. Many only know how to dictate information for students to memorize. Teachers have not been equipped to show students how to question, try different ways of solving problems or make informed guesses about the unknown.

None of this means American school reform is misguided. Americans may have veered too far from high standards, just as East Asians veered too far from developing the inquisitive boldness they now find lacking. But it is also too mechanistic to conclude simply that the ideal is halfway between these extremes.

The apparently inverse relationship between these nations’ rankings on skills and their rankings on love of math and science should certainly be a warning. Can American schools inch up the skills scale without sacrificing their place on the attitudinal scale? Nobody knows which may ultimately prove more important.

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