Unsexy Reforms That Stick and Work (Mike Smith)*

Much in the press has been made about how far American students are falling behind their peers in the rest of the world. So here’s a provocative dinner party question: “Where would Massachusetts and Minnesota fall on a results table for the TIMSS international assessments: Are they near the top of the table, the middle, the bottom?” 

TIMSS is the acronym for Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. TIMSS mathematics and science assessments are administered to representative samples of 4th and 8th graders at the national or provincial (state) levels.

Every few years since 1995, upwards of 50 countries and a smattering of other jurisdictions have participated in the study. Few people, even of those reading this, know that Massachusetts and Minnesota participated in the 2007 TIMSS assessments. Thirty-six nations for 4th grade and 49 for 8th grade and seven jurisdictions for each grade comprised the 2007 samples. Among the participants were the five Asian nations that dominate the ranking tables in every international educational assessment: Singapore, Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei, South Korea, and Japan as well as some nations (England, Hungary) that have recently been touted as particularly successful in educating their students.

There are four comparisons in TIMSS – one each for 4th and 8th grade math and one each for 4th and 8th grade science. In three of the four comparisons, Massachusetts ranked in the top five countries and jurisdictions: 4th grade math (fourth), 4th grade science (second), and 8th grade science (third),  besting all but the Asian nations and exceeding two or three of them in each comparison. In 8th grade math, Massachusetts ranked sixth, behind the five Asian nations. Minnesota placed in the top 10 in each comparison. In math they were sixth in 4th grade and seventh in 8th grade, while in science they were fifth in 4th grade and tied for seventh in 8th grade.

How could this be? The critics of U.S. education see our nation as going to hell in a handbasket, especially in the STEM (mathematics and science) areas, and attribute this status to the education system, which requires drastic revision from top to bottom.

Let’s focus on Massachusetts. From a distance it looks like every other state: a governor, chief state school officer, districts, unions, tenure, teachers, the same textbooks as other states, good but not dramatically different assessments, 180-day school years, no dominance of the intensive after-school tutoring that characterizes the five Asian competitors, substantial diversity.

Massachusetts also does very well on the U.S. National Assessment of Education Progress. What is it that makes it different? Some people will note that there is somewhat less poverty than in many other states, some major universities, and a higher percentage of educated citizens than other states. All of this is true to some extent.

My guess, however, is different. What I notice is a state that for the past 15-20 years has had consistent leadership at the state and district level that honored continuous improvement of its school system. Their 1993 reform law created a clear statewide framework/roadmap for reform, for which they developed robust standards, invested in high-quality assessments, and funded the state’s reform agenda for a decade. New governors did not run on platforms of closing or merging schools, eliminating unions, or creating new systems with a majority of charter schools – they ran in support of sustaining and improving the reforms they had. Stable leadership and a strong political coalition were in support of a comprehensive, well-funded reform framework.

The central idea here is that Massachusetts represents a proof point that suggests that other states do not need a radical makeover to become internationally competitive. They need to build a learning capacity, hold the course, and steadily improve. This is not easy. It is not sexy. It is not a magic bullet, so it will not attract those who want to simply write legislation or those who come as a superintendent or Secretary of Education for two years and then leave while claiming serious change. It is hard, serious, important work.

Marshall (Mike) Smith has been the Education program director for the Hewlett Foundation, the Dean and Professor of the School of Education at Stanford, a Professor and Director of a research center at University of Wisconsin at Madison, and an Associate Professor at Harvard. In between universities he served in high-level policy positions in the Carter, Clinton, and Obama administrations.

*Mike’s post appeared March 9, 2011 on Thoughts on Policy in Education (TOP-ed)



Filed under leadership, school reform policies

8 responses to “Unsexy Reforms That Stick and Work (Mike Smith)*

  1. MaryAnn Reilly

    I am wondering what the data suggests about children’s performance in these states when the poverty level exceeds 74%. Are these students competitive? With regard to mathematics and science performance are there significant differences between students living in poverty and student who are not? Just wondering what you are finding.

    • larrycuban

      Sorry but I do not have the data in hand to answer your questions. Mike Smith who did the guest blog might have them.

    • Joel VerDuin


      While the TIMSS data may not be available, NAEP scores can be disaggregated by poverty using the free lunch eligibility indicator.

      In 8th grade math, students of poverty in Massachusetts score rank second in the nation behind North Dakota (as one example). Massachusetts students of poverty also outperform about a dozen states in the same assessment when comparing only Massachusetts students of poverty -vs- all students in other states.

      Minnesota students of poverty rank 12th on math in the 8th grade NAEP Assessment.

      The NAEP comparison tool can also show, at a glance, the point differential between students of poverty and those who are not identified for free/reduced lunch eligibility.



  2. Bob Calder

    Let’s contrast MA and MN because they got the same results in VERY different environments. MA is proscriptive but MN is hippy-dippy-do-your-thing (if I may take a less serious tone.) However, both states implemented Singapore Math.

    Though Singapore Math was probably not a magic bullet, what I am trying to point out is that education research needs controls. Minnesota has a lot to offer as a filter for Massachusetts.

    • larrycuban

      The differences between the states that you point out is fascinating particularly that both adopted and implemented Singapore Math. That both states did well internationally when their degree of top-downness (to pick a clumsy word) varies means that level of state control may not be the critical variable that so many policy advocates now claim.

      • Bob Calder

        Si. As Physics First evangelist Leon Ledermann suggested, a facility for understanding systems is requisite. The natural choice is for physicists and certain mathematicians (properly supervised of course.)

        Regarding MaryAnne’s thought. One might isolate some effects using 1960’s era community support in predominantly black urban neighborhoods in New York at about the time the Feds built massive project housing and funded afternoon and evening neighborhood teen activity centers. As those children aged, their performance in particularly good schools would be indicative of higher income levels.

  3. I think we have history in this country that is embedded deeply in many state to state comparisons.

    An average New England state, and an average state on the New England migration route west is distinct from the average in the rest of the country, and the average southern state is as distinct, albeit in the opposite direction.

    Massachusetts over the last Y years, I claim, shows what can be done in Vermont, or Wisconsin. Minnesota – Connecticut or Iowa. I don’t think their experiences speak to Nevada, and I know that any perceived relevance to the experience or potential in South Carolina or Arkansas is a misunderstanding.


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