Wednesday, November 14, 2007

American Students versus the world

All the Asian countries that have better scores are homogenous societies with few new immigrants, and those immigrants may not vary much by race , language and culture.

If they break down the American states results by race or socioeconomic status then there are groups of students that are achieving close , if not equal, to these Asian countries.

This is another study that will add to the fodder that 1) American students are not studying math/science, 2) American corporations have a desperate need for people with these skills and 3) foreign workers are thus our only chance to shore up our economic stability for the future.

Let's take this one by one:

1) American students are not studying math/science - what is the compensation for math/science/engineering compared to the compensation for finance/economics or medicine currently? and projected for the future ? The amount of time, the effort and the difficulty of the subject matter versus the expected rewards is out of sync in the US .

2) American corporations have a desperate need for people with these skills - easy to make this claim but what has been the actual hiring pattern for US corporations the past few (say 5) years? Perhaps 80% or more of the hiring is for workers overseas. The demand for workers in the US, who 'command' 2-3 times the compensation rate, has been decreasing at the same time, as firms can get the 'same' skills overseas for a fraction of the cost.

Basic economic theory says that if companies are 'desperate' for these skills then the compensation for these skills will rise, perhaps dramatically. Instead , pay raises and salaries have stayed at or below the inflation rate the past few years. When the was booming and the bubble rising, compensation was zooming and enrollment in computer science programs filled up. After the bubble burst and with globalization ascendant and salaries dropping relative to inflation, enrollment for comp sci has fallen precipitously also.

3) foreign workers are thus our only chance to shore up our economic stability for the future - foreign workers are by definition , not US citizens, and almost always are hired as contract workers , at least for the first couple of years. As such they have little ability to push-back to their employer's workplace demands and thus may appear to be 'harder working' . They help keep compensation down for US workers and they don't push-back on work conditions - what's not to like for US corporations?

Also, US salaries no matter how stagnant and unattractive to US citizens, have been a dramatic windfall to foreign workers compared to compensation back home. This is now changing (we'll see if this continues and for how long) and the incentive to come here and earn an American salary is becoming less attractive as they can stay home with family and earn a decent wage.

Bottom line - American students and their parents who are advising them , are not so dumb. They are responding to market forces and the demand for skills for certain fields. The ONLY true indicator of demand for skills is the compensation being offered , and the trend in compensation.

November 14, 2007

Study Compares States’ Math and Science Scores With Other Countries’

American students even in low-performing states like Alabama do better on math and science tests than students in most foreign countries, including Italy and Norway, according to a new study released yesterday. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that students in Singapore and several other Asian countries significantly outperform American students, even those in high-achieving states like Massachusetts, the study found.

“In this case, the bad news trumps the good because our Asian economic competitors are winning the race to prepare students in math and science,” said the study’s author, Gary W. Phillips, chief scientist at the American Institutes of Research, a nonprofit independent scientific research firm.

The study equated standardized test scores of eighth-grade students in each of the 50 states with those of their peers in 45 countries. Experts said it was the first such effort to link standardized test scores, state by state, with scores from other nations.

Gage Kingsbury, a director at the Northwest Evaluation Association, a group in Oregon that carries out testing in 1,500 school districts, praised the study’s methodology but said “a flock of difficulties” made it hazardous to compare test results from one country to another and from one state to another. “Kids don’t start school at the same age in different countries,” he said. “Not all kids are in school in grade eight, and the percentage differs from country to country.”

Because of such differences, Dr. Kingsbury said, it would be a mistake to infer too much about the relative rigor of the educational systems across the states and nations in the study based merely on test score differences.

The scores for students in the United States came from tests administered by the federal Department of Education in most states in 2005 and 2007. For foreign students, the scores came from math and science tests administered worldwide in 2003, as part of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, known as the Timss.

Concern that science and math achievement was not keeping pace with the nation’s economic competitors had been building even before the most recent Timss survey, in which the highest-performing nations were Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Japan. American students lagged far behind those nations, but earned scores that were comparable to peers in European nations like Slovakia and Estonia, and were well above countries like Egypt, Chile and Saudi Arabia.

The Timss survey gives each country a metric by which to compare its educational attainment with other nations’. The nationwide American test, known as the National Assessments of Educational Progress, allows policy makers in each state to compare their students’ results with those in other states.

The new study used statistical linking to compare scores on the national assessment, state by state, with other nations’ scores on the Timss. Dr. Phillips, who from 1999 to 2002 led the agency of the Department of Education that administers the national assessment, likened the methodology to what economists do when they convert international currencies into dollars to compare poverty levels across various countries, for instance.

On the most recent national assessment, the highest-performing state in math was Massachusetts, and in science, North Dakota. The new study shows that average math achievement in Massachusetts was lower than in the leading Asian nations and in Belgium, but higher than in 40 other countries, including Australia, Russia, England and Israel.

Mississippi was the lowest-performing state in both math and science. In math, Mississippi students’ achievement was comparable to those of peers in Bulgaria and Moldova, and in science, to those in Norway and Romania.

In math, New Jersey, Connecticut and New York students were roughly equivalent with each other and with their peers in Australia, the Netherlands and Hungary.

The study’s contribution is the high-level perspective it offers on the nation’s education system, a bit the way a satellite image highlights the nation’s topography, said Thomas Toch, a co-director of Education Sector, an independent policy group.

“It shows we’re not doing as badly as some say,” Mr. Toch said. “We’re in the top half of the table, and a number of states are outperforming the majority of the nations in the study. But our performance in math and science lags behind that of the front-running Asian nations.”

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