Why the Heartland Has Math Smarts

Mansnerus, Laura. “Why the Heartland Has Math
Smarts. ” New York Times  [New York,
N.Y.] 5  Apr. 1992, Late Edition (East
Coast): A.26. New York
Times
.

“The work ethic has to be at the front,” he said. “When you’re
asked to do a job out here, and that includes going to school, you
figure you have to get out there and do it.” He went on: “You just
wouldn’t think of leaving school here, and if you did you’d have to
explain it to a lot of people. It’s parental involvement, but it’s
community involvement, too. The community feels they own all their
youngsters. If you’re standing on a street corner in any town in
North Dakota, people are going to come up and want to know what
you’re doing there.” Also, he added, “It’s no picnic standing out
on a street corner here in the winter. You’d rather be in a
building.”

Nancy Keenan, Montana’s Superintendent of Schools, struck a
similar note. Montana students read a lot, she said, partly
“because there’s nothing else to do.” She noted, too, that except
on Indian reservations, where family groups tend to be more mobile,
people do not move or change schools much in Montana. That makes it
easier for teachers to keep track of each student, relentlessly. “I
have classrooms with seven kids,” Ms. Keenan said. “Those kids get
individual attention.” ‘I Have Six Reasons’

There are strong correlations, however, between high math scores
and factors largely beyond the schools’ control. Scores show a high
correlation with race, though this does not always supersede
regional patterns. West Virginia, for example, did poorly although
90 percent of students taking the test were white: Their scores
were equaled or exceeded by Hispanic students in Montana and Iowa.
The high-performing states also had the lowest percentages of
students reporting that they watch television six or more hours a
day. “It’s obviously a surrogate for something else,” said Ina V.
S. Mullis of E.T.S., the project’s deputy executive director,
referring to that finding. “We know that if we banned TV watching,
we wouldn’t all turn into Einsteins.”

 

Copyright New York Times Company Apr 5,
1992

THESE ARE states not often heard from and not anywhere near
Silicon Valley, Bell Labs or Route 128. But where do students do
best on standardized math tests? In North Dakota, Montana, Iowa,
Nebraska, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

It is in this belt that America’s student performance comes
closest to that of the rest of the industrialized world, at least
as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a
Federal Government project. Last year, having tested a random
sample in each participating state for the first time in any
subject, the project published comparisons of mathematics
proficiency among public school eighth-graders in 40 states. What’s
Their Secret?

Ever since, these six northern and rural states clustered at the
top of the nation’s map have been asked — repeatedly — what they
are doing right. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York,
writing on The New York Times Op-Ed page, even suggested that since
proximity to Canada is a much better predictor of math test
performance than per-pupil expenditures on education,
“disadvantaged states should establish summer capitals in the
Thousand Islands of the St. Lawrence River.”

Officials in the high-scoring states agree they are not
achieving by spending. And though they speak highly of their
teachers, their explanations for the math success, explanations
supported by supplementary data students gave testers, have little
to do with what schools can accomplish. Wayne G. Sanstead,
Superintendent of Public Instruction in North Dakota, the
highest-scoring state, said many envious inquiries from other
states noted that his ranks 49th in teacher salaries. “Yep,” he
confirmed, “we’re 49th.”

“The work ethic has to be at the front,” he said. “When you’re
asked to do a job out here, and that includes going to school, you
figure you have to get out there and do it.” He went on: “You just
wouldn’t think of leaving school here, and if you did you’d have to
explain it to a lot of people. It’s parental involvement, but it’s
community involvement, too. The community feels they own all their
youngsters. If you’re standing on a street corner in any town in
North Dakota, people are going to come up and want to know what
you’re doing there.” Also, he added, “It’s no picnic standing out
on a street corner here in the winter. You’d rather be in a
building.”

Nancy Keenan, Montana’s Superintendent of Schools, struck a
similar note. Montana students read a lot, she said, partly
“because there’s nothing else to do.” She noted, too, that except
on Indian reservations, where family groups tend to be more mobile,
people do not move or change schools much in Montana. That makes it
easier for teachers to keep track of each student, relentlessly. “I
have classrooms with seven kids,” Ms. Keenan said. “Those kids get
individual attention.” ‘I Have Six Reasons’

And why do Iowa pupils do well on tests? “I have six reasons,”
said William L. Lepley, the state Director of Education, allowing
that he is asked this question “well, no more than once a day.”
First, he said, is the population’s homogeneity: “It’s easier to
educate and to allocate resources when you have homogeneity both in
sizes of schools and types of students,” he said.

Other factors he listed include a strong work ethic, emphasis on
homework, a below-average rate of television watching, a high
average education level in the state and a financing system that
insures fairly even per-pupil expenditures in each district.

The Educational Testing Service, which wrote the National
Assessment’s math test and a report on it titled “The State of
Mathematics Achievement,” looked at some of the same factors by
questioning students and teachers. No Connections

The results show no apparent relationship between high scores
and high levels of teacher experience or certification, or
percentage of students grouped by ability. The study did not gather
data on teacher salaries or per-pupil expenditures; testing service
officials say these are not particularly useful measures, since a
dollar buys more in North Dakota than it does in, say, New York. A
state-by-state listing of those two factors shows that the top six
states did not do well in either of those two categories.

The study actually found an inverse correlation between high
scores and the time students said they spent on homework. The six
top states are all at or near the bottom of the list in the
percentage of students who reported spending two or more hours a
day on homework, ranging from 5 percent in North Dakota, Minnesota
and Iowa — Mr. Lepley’s statement notwithstanding — to 7 percent
in Wisconsin. (Leaders in this category are Hawaii at 12 percent,
California at 11 percent and Illinois at 10 percent.)

Gaylynn Becker, a statistician for the North Dakota Department
of Public Instruction, cautioned that “We’re not supposed to draw
conclusions,” but having been a teacher and counselor, he guessed
that in high-scoring states students simply have an easier time
with homework.

There are strong correlations, however, between high math scores
and factors largely beyond the schools’ control. Scores show a high
correlation with race, though this does not always supersede
regional patterns. West Virginia, for example, did poorly although
90 percent of students taking the test were white: Their scores
were equaled or exceeded by Hispanic students in Montana and Iowa.
The high-performing states also had the lowest percentages of
students reporting that they watch television six or more hours a
day. “It’s obviously a surrogate for something else,” said Ina V.
S. Mullis of E.T.S., the project’s deputy executive director,
referring to that finding. “We know that if we banned TV watching,
we wouldn’t all turn into Einsteins.”

Among the factors more directly related to student performance
are parents’ level of education, always a reliable predictor; the
percentage of pupils living in two-parent families, and the variety
of reading materials in the home.

Leading the nation in the percentage of parents who are college
graduates is, yes, North Dakota, at 49 percent. But more striking
is the rarity of high-school dropouts among parents in the math
belt. In none of the six top states did the percentage of parents
who failed to finish high school exceed 5 percent; the national
average was 10 percent.

Family income is usually a good predictor of performance, too,
but the test-takers were not asked for this information. And as
with per-pupil expenditures, state-by-state comparisons yield no
telling correlations. Indeed, in per-capita income all the top
states except Minnesota are below the national average.

As to what these demographic patterns can tell educators, the
National Assessment report said little, after noting that the top
states have relatively few big-city schools and their attendant
problems.

Iris Carl, president of the National Council of Teachers of
Mathematics and an administrator in the Houston Independent School
District, said the best prescription for good performance was to
better teach analytical thinking. “Even the best is not good,” Ms.
Carl said. “In an international framework, we’re last, even behind
Thailand and other countries that we call third-world.”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.