USA Today story; another look

The USA Today story I talked about the other day  is quite long and addresses many facets of the problem. Unfortunately, it is horribly misinformed, and even more unfortunately, many people reading it will believe it.

There’s one paragraph that was disturbing to me about the results of a test called PISA:

“The approach has led other countries to success. Teens in the Netherlands post some of the strongest math scores in the world on the PISA assessment. That’s largely because the exam prioritizes the application of mathematical concepts to real-life situations, and the Dutch teach math rooted in reality and relevant to society. Some longtime Dutch math experts were involved in the design of PISA, which began in 2000 and is given every three years to a sample of 15-year-old students in developed countries and economies.”

The method that the Dutch use to teach math is known as RME: Realistic Mathematics Education, and originated in the Hans Freudenthal Institute. Despite valid criticism of it, like most things in education, bad ideas get touted as the silver bullet and RME is no exception. So I refer you to a post by Greg Ashman in which he analyzes PISA results, showing that inquiry-based learning (which is a large part of the RME method) is not what its touted to be by so called experts, nor USA Today.


3 thoughts on “USA Today story; another look

  1. Garelick

    Some remarks (it is a complex case).

    For the Netherlands the trends for math, as well as for reading and science, are downward (Figure 2 in the report for the Netherlands).
    For math the series since 2003: 538, 531, 526, 523, 512, 519 (OECD mean 500 in 2003, somewhat lower in 2015 and 2018).

    The self-professed OECD ideology (the ideology of Andreas Schleicher, PISA chief) has been constructivism from the very start. (On constructivism for example Anderson, Reder & Simon, 2000 In math there has been a close coöperation with Dutch reformers in the Hans Freudenthal school, internationally know RME, realistic math education.
    Contrary to what is stated in the USA Today quote, RME is neither rooted in reality, nor relevant to society. Contextual problems are quite artificial, in daily instruction as well as in in alle kinds of assessments (summative, evaluative, international). Full mastery of basic skills in arithmetic is the exception now, even excellent students tend to rely on fast calculation, or even the calculator, for evaluation basic multiplication facts. It is quite obvious now to many mathematicians that RME has not resulted in better understanding of mathematics while fluency in basic skills has got lost. The link between RME and the downward trend in PISA Math is correlational only: obviously there are many possible causes, not just the RME method. Remember: the Dutch trends for reading and science are downward also.

    Yes, Dutch students get instructed in the kind of math that is tested by PISA. That’ll give them an edge, sure.
    A good question is: can such instruction be really effective? There has been a reform of the summative examinations of secundary education: a simple math assessment (‘rekentoets’) (contextual problems mainly, very much like PISA math items) was added to these exams., in an attempt by the governmebt to ameliorate the downward trending math results in eucation. The reform attempt did cost about half a billion euros, and ultimately had to be aborted in 2019 because assessment results were desastrous and no betterment was in view. A very big experiment, demonstrating that exercise in solving contextual math problems does not really result in acquiring that skill. Lots of info on this experiment on my website (in Dutch, catch word: rekentoets).

    A strange world. They’re idiots.


  2. Not surprisingly, in the Freudenthal Institute “insight” has strong roots in professional US mathematics education. The seeds were sown when Tom Romberg of U Wisconsin Madison (WCER) spent a year there. His own MiC, Mathematics in Context, was never viable in comparison with Michigan State’s CMC as middle school mathematics education salvation but it was the same idea and even worse. No matter, Revealed Wisdom is Revealed Wisdom. I had never seen Ashman’s report on the PISA study but McKensey did a very large study of PISA performance with essentially the same results:

    “In all five regions, when teachers took the lead, scores were generally higher, and the more inquiry-based learning, the lower the scores.”


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