High-school teachers are amongst the most important contributors to the development of the science and technology workforce of the future. Many of the more than 23,000 US high-school physics teachers are not adequately prepared to teach the subject. Only one-third of them, for example, majored in physics or physics education. Can inadequate teacher preparation be a factor in the poor performance of US students on international assessments of their achievements in science and physics? Since 1995 the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) has been administered four times to many hundreds of thousands of students in over 60 countries. TIMSS is used to measure trends in the mathematics and science knowledge and skills of fourth- and eighth-graders. The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) has been administered three times since 2000, it focuses on 15-year-olds' capabilities in reading literacy, mathematics literacy, and science literacy. TIMSS Advanced (1995) assessed school-leaving students who have had special preparation in advanced mathematics and physics. In all these studies the US students, including the Advanced Placement physics students, scored below the international average, sometimes in the bottom third of countries!
Three knowledgeable speakers were invited to talk about the physics K-12 education systems in other countries: one that consistently scores at the top of the PISA (Dr. Pekka Hirvonen, Finland) or score much higher than the US on TIMSS (Dr. Jozefina Turlo, Poland, covering various Central European countries) and significantly better on recent bi-lateral comparisons (Dr. Lei Bao, covering China in comparison to the US). This session was designed to find out what we can learn from the physics teaching systems in these high-scoring countries that might be pertinent to our efforts to improve the teaching of physics and science to 8th through 12th graders in the US.
There are several differences in the design and purpose of the TIMSS and PISA assessments; for example the TIMSS focuses on the application of familiar skills and knowledge often emphasized in classrooms, whereas the PISA tests emphasize students' abilities to apply skills and information learned in school to solve problems or make decisions they may face at work. PISA test questions tend to deemphasize factual recall and demand more complex reasoning and problem-solving skills than those on TIMSS, requiring students to apply logic, synthesize information, and communicate solutions clearly