Interview: MSU Distinguished Professor William Schmidt
Interview by Dr. Donald Crawford, BCP Director of Academics
Dr. William Schmidt is a Michigan State University Distinguished Professor of Education and Statistics.
He is currently co-director of the Education Policy Center, co-director of the US-China Center for Research on Educational Excellence and co-director of the Promoting Rigorous Outcomes in Mathematics and Science Education (PROM/SE) project.
Minnesota’s fourth graders’ performance on the Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) earned them a ranking of fifth in the world. Minnesota’s success is attributed to state math standards adopted in 1997 and revised in 2003 that you helped create. What is so different about these standards and what was your role in creating them?
In 1995, when the first TIMSS was given, Minnesota participated and their performance was very lackluster, like the United States.
At that time, Minnesota simply didn’t have any state standards, unlike many other states.
Without standards of what was expected, the amount of time given to mathematics was on the short side. Some places it was half an hour daily. Some places it may have been an hour—but not necessarily every day of the week.
By 1997, Minnesota came out with the first version of their standards and they asked me and my colleagues to look at them. We compared their standards to our international benchmarking of standards and we made suggestions.
The initial Minnesota standards were typical, a “mile wide and an inch deep” and not very coherent. Their eighth grade standards were mostly about arithmetic, not rigorous and not up to international standards. We gave them feedback.
Minnesota kept working on their standards. They came to us with a version around 2000 for more feedback.
They revised some more and in 2003 they came out with the current version.
By the 2003 version there were many fewer topics at a given grade level. There was much greater coherence.
It fit together, it was logical, and by 8th grade they were basically pushing the international curriculum of algebra and geometry.
Minnesota had put together standards that were more rigorous and coherent than a lot of other state standards are today. Our model of coherence, which we use for our international benchmarking, reflects what the top achieving countries do, that is, which topics they cover in which grades.
In doing our analysis, we find there are a lot of places where state standards were covering topics that were really what I call “before their time.” You can’t really cover these topics because the background in mathematics that’s necessary has not been covered or is being simultaneously covered. The children don’t really have a chance of learning these topics. I call it clutter for short.
In the fourth grade in 1995, as reported by Minnesota teachers, about 50% of the school year was covering this clutter and only about a third of the school year was focusing on developing concepts of number (basic place value and whole number operations)—which is the main topic that should be covered thoroughly in fourth grade.
In 2007, the same teaching force essentially had only 4% clutter and spent almost two-thirds of the school year on developing concepts of number. That’s much more consistent with what is done internationally.
The eighth grade Minnesota teachers in ’95 had somewhere around 40% clutter and spent only about 10% of the year on algebra coverage. Most recently in 2007 they had reduced clutter to about 2% and were spending about 50% of their school year on algebra.
So it looks like the standards were taken seriously, had an impact on what the teachers taught, and correspondingly, as you would expect, that was related to their performance.
Minnesota’s improvement by the time of the 2007 TIMSS was really remarkable. Their fourth graders, who would be the ones that studied their first four years under their new standards, got a score that put them just below the top achieving countries. Minnesota’s gain over the twelve year span from ‘95 to ‘07 was three times that of the US as a whole.
I think that focused and coherent standards are a big part of the story. The other part of the story is that they also probably doubled the amount of time given to mathematics from where it had been in 1995.
Not a lot of educators understand the importance of a focused math curriculum or the value of waiting to address certain topics until later years. How did you achieve a consensus for this dramatic change in the math standards?
This is a credit to Minnesota. They actually took the data that we had from our international benchmarking of math standards, treated it seriously, asked for our critique, changed, asked for critique again, and changed again.
I don’t know their motivation for sure. The business community is strongly engaged in this process. They do have a strong non-governmental organization, SciMathMN (www.scimathmn.org) made up of businesses and organizations that support education and that has been a real push in addition to the people within the state department.
Do the Minnesota standards recommend or require certain textbooks?
No, I don’t recommend any textbooks. For one thing, none of them are perfect. There are some that are better than others. I think that’s not the issue.
The curriculum or the standards, if they’re done in a coherent fashion, should set the road map that defines in what sequence things should be taught. The textbook then should simply be bent, twisted, and torn apart and put into the right order.
So people need to take whatever book they’re using and use it wisely, being led by the coherent standards, not by what’s in the textbook.
How do you ensure that the test and the standards are aligned?
In another few months we are going to do another wave of analyses on the Minnesota data. We’re going to analyze how much the Minnesota state assessment links with their standards and with the TIMSS.
We’ll have a good answer to that question in the near future.
Recently Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley tasked the Maryland State Board of Education with moving toward internationally competitive standards in math and science. What words of caution, advice or encouragement would you have for a state trying to develop a set of rigorous, coherent and focused math standards?
Don’t get caught up in the clichés and what appear to be the simplistic solutions. It really takes very serious effort to look at the actual standards and their coherence. That means you have to have people who deeply understand mathematics and who also understand classrooms.
There’s enough data and enough wisdom that we’ve gained from all of these analyses to give us a pretty good idea of what standards should look like.
Any state, Maryland included, that wants to do this needs to take the analysis seriously. They just can’t pretend that they can just move three things around in the standards and somehow now they’ll be internationally competitive.
You have to look at it seriously along all three important characteristics: the focus, the coherence and the rigor.
Some states have just cut out a bunch of topics—but they cut out the wrong ones. They cut what’s really critical to bridging, for example, between whole numbers and fractions and fractions and decimals. The stuff that looks at the relationships and the properties gets dropped out.
In getting to greater focus they’ve diminished coherence.
The other thing we see is making a quick fling to making Algebra One an eighth grade course for everyone. Well if you look carefully internationally, there isn’t an Algebra One in eighth grade. Instead you see algebra, in gradually increasing complexity, throughout sixth, seventh and eighth grades.
I have a much simpler solution. If this nation would get off its duff and have national standards which would be developed by a national group of experts, Maryland wouldn’t have to confront this and fifty states wouldn’t have to reenact the scenario in different places.
That’s my bottom line. I don’t see how we’re ever going to get there until we sort of bite that bullet. When I say national, I don’t mean the federal government should get involved in this at all. I think it should be a quasi-independent organization that’s formed by the states.
If you bring the right people together it’ll be done right. I was involved in re-doing the Michigan standards which are pretty good. What I did is convened three research mathematicians, two math educators and myself. We sat in a room, stopped arguing about ideology, and started confronting it, and it works.
You can get those people to agree. I think that’s what Maryland needs to do and I think that’s what we need to do nationally.
What is a reasonable time frame for a State to establish new standards and how long will it take to impact classroom instruction?
We’ve seen the Minnesota story. When you finally get the standards right, it starts to show up for the kids that received all their math instruction under those new standards—so after roughly four years the impact of the new standards will show up in the scores of fourth graders.
It can happen relatively quickly. I don’t think we’re talking decades or anything like that. How quickly you can do it depends on accepting the fact that there are some pretty good models out there—you don’t have to start from scratch.
It doesn’t have to be a uniquely Maryland set of standards. There is a fairly common base of what the top achieving countries do. If one simply looks there to begin the process, not necessarily to copy it, it doesn’t take that long.
I would bet you could put a decent set of standards together within half a year if you got serious about it.
It is such a serious issue. I’d think that’s what any state that really wants to do this, should do.
Maryland officials are considering two different international math assessments, the TIMSS and the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Do you consider one of these two measures to be a better assessment of math instruction?
It depends on the purpose. They both give good information but about different things.
PISA is a study of 15-year-olds, so it is a study of what they know by the time that compulsory education ends in most European and OECD countries.
If you want to know what the cumulative outcome of a system is for certain practical kinds of skills, like whether you can read graphs and tables, then PISA does a good job.
If you want to study what children learn in school, then TIMSS is the better way to go because it is a school-based study.
So it depends. I think for developing good standards and things of that sort probably TIMSS is a bit better.
Accenture Helps BCP with Project Impact
During the fall Accenture completed Project Impact, an intensive volunteer-based project designed to help BCP with organizational development and assessment.
In an effort to “Impact lives” Accenture embarked on this project to recommend a strategy for BCP that would allow us to more efficiently and effectively achieve our goal to better serve and improve the outcomes of underprivileged youth in Baltimore City and measure those results.
Accenture’s work helped BCP identify our organizational strengths and weaknesses and think about ways to better manage our day to day work to enhance internal communications and support our mission.
Using the Accenture work as a starting point, BCP has continued the process of articulating our priorities including defining the pillars of a BCP school, strategies for achieving our goals and methods for measuring progress.
This work has been essential in distilling where we are as an organization and where we need to be.
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We would like to thank the Accenture consultants who have so generously volunteered their time and expertise: Christine Ambrose, Vanessa Godshalk, Brittany Normand, Megan O’Keefe, and Matt Sitek.