English kids significantly lag East Asians in maths

rogertitcombe's picture
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Henry is right that the press release, and hence the media comment on this important report from the Institute of Education about children's understanding of maths, does not reflect the abstract of the published document.

However neither does the abstract reflect the content of the report!

The full report is here.

These are the recommendations in full.

"Firstly, policymakers should concentrate on reforming mathematics education in the early primary and pre-school years. This paper has shown how there is a large gap in math achievement between England and leading East Asian nations even at age 10, but also that this gap does not appreciably widen during secondary school. Thus, despite major policy focus on secondary schools, there is little evidence that these institutions are responsible for England’s disappointing position in the PISA and TIMSS rankings."

"Our second recommendation calls for further investment in the skills of children from disadvantaged backgrounds, again with a focus on the primary and pre-school years. Section 3.3 illustrates that the socio-economic gradient in math test scores seem to be steeper in England than East Asian countries. While this gap may be widening slightly in England during secondary school, socio-economic differences in academic achievement are largely in place by age 10."

"As primary education is free or nearly free in England and most East Asian countries, alternative explanations for the large socio-economic achievement gradient in England must be sought. One possibility is that ability grouping in primary school mathematics classes is relatively common in England, but not East Asia (Boaler et al. 2011, OECD 2012)21. As Gamoran (2004) and OECD (2012) note, there is little evidence that such streaming improves average performance, but may exacerbate test score differences between advantaged and disadvantaged groups. Similarly, between school selection processes are weaker in East Asian countries than England (OECD 2012), meaning that disadvantaged children are likely to have better access to quality educational resources. Reducing the segregation of pupils in England, both within and between primary schools, may thus make an important contribution to narrowing the socio-economic achievement gap in mathematics."

"Finally, although we maintain that policymakers should focus on the earlier stages of young people’s educational career, some important changes are needed to improve aspects of mathematics provision during secondary school. The most pressing issue is to ensure that the curriculum stretches the best young mathematicians enough, and that they are motivated (and incentivised) to fully develop their already accumulated academic skill. Evidence presented in this paper has suggested that the gap between the highest achieving children in England and the highest achieving children in East Asia widens between ages 10 and 16 (at least in mathematics). This is something that needs to be corrected as highly skilled individuals are likely to be important for the continuing success of certain major British industries (e.g. financial services) and to foster the technological innovation needed for long-run economic growth (Bean and Brown 2005, Toner 2011). One possible explanation for this finding is the widespread use of private tuition by East Asian families for both remedial and enrichment purposes (Ono, 2007; Sohn et al., 2010). This helps to boost the performance of all pupils, including those already performing well at school. In comparison, private tutoring in England is mainly undertaken by a relatively small selection of children from affluent backgrounds, often for remedial purposes. While a large proportion of East Asian families are willing to personally finance such activities through the private sector, the same is unlikely to hold true in the foreseeable future within England. Consequently, the state may need to intervene. Gifted and talented schemes, a shift of school and pupil incentives away from reaching floor targets (e.g. a C grade in GCSE mathematics) and enhanced tuition for children who excel in school are all possible policy responses."

The key points therefore are as follows.

1. There is a large average deficit compared to East Asian countries at age 10 that does not appreciably widen during the secondary phase.

2. The socio-economic gradient (difference in performent between most and least affluent) is greater here and this is largely in place by age 10.

3. As primary education is free or nearly free in England and most East Asian countries, one possibility for the disparity of performance is that ability grouping in primary school mathematics classes is relatively common in England, but not East Asia.

4. There is little evidence that streaming improves average performance, but may exacerbate test score differences between advantaged and disadvantaged groups. Similarly, between school selection processes are weaker in East Asian countries than England (OECD 2012), meaning that disadvantaged children are likely to have better access to quality educational resources (in East Asia). Reducing the segregation of pupils in England, both within and between primary schools, may thus make an important contribution to narrowing the socio-economic achievement gap in mathematics.

5. Gifted and talented schemes, a shift of school and pupil incentives away from reaching floor targets (e.g. a C grade in GCSE mathematics) and enhanced tuition for children who excel in school are all possible policy responses.

In a sentence then, my summary goes something like this.

English pupils significantly lag their East Asian counterparts in maths from infancy, the likely causes being related to social and educational inequality, too much setting and streaming in primary schools, too much selection and fragmentation in the school system generally and in secondary schools too much emphasis on the C grade floor target at the expense of quality, differentiated teaching of all pupils including the most able.

The DfE however thinks the key messages are that we need tougher discipline, harder exams and more setting and streaming. The media (quality and tabloid), as usual, completely fails to understand or address the issues at all.

There is a lot more to be learned and inferred from this important IoE study that I shall leave to my next post.
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