International Comparisons in Mathematics Education – Mathematics Education Masters Seminar 8 February 2016, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

17 min read

I have changed this seminar from previous years, this year I have taken a political economy turn. This means that I want to look at international comparisons in mathematics education (in relation to school mathematics) not just on the basis of the comparison of teaching and learning but in the context of political economy, particularly globalization. Generally, discussions about international comparative research begin with comparisons of the performance of students in different nation states, this is often followed with consideration of the differences in societies, politics and culture in the compared jurisdictions and then there are questions about the validity of such studies and whether the comparisons are fair.

When we think about international comparisons in mathematics education we tend to think about those studies that are based on assessment, like for example PISA. International comparisons are, however, not limited to assessment-based surveys, comparative studies have been undertaken on teaching and learning, based on observing and comparing classroom practices in different countries.

International comparative education is an aspect of, indeed a phenomena of, globalization. So here I want to promote a discussion not only about the nature of this kind of research, what it can tell us and what it can’t, but what is its role in the context globalization, and how does globalization play a part in education?

I begin with an explanation of the idea of globalization in economic, political and cultural terms. I follow this with a summary of the key lines of international comparative research in education. Finally, I present a critique beginning at the level of the different types of study and finally in relation to globalization.


This is a term that describes the a variety of economic, political, cultural, ideological and environmental processes. This contested idea first appeared in the 1940s, though really became widespread in the 1990s.

Globalization is a set of social processes that lead to the social condition of globality, through the growing consciousness of global connectivity (Steger, 2013, p. 1).

It is a contested idea:

There is no consensus on exactly what processes constitute globalization, but common themes include the creation of networks, expansion of social relations, and the acceleration of social exchange (Steger, 2013, p. 1).

The economic, political and cultural dimensions of globalization:

The economic dimension of globalization

The Bretton Woods conference held at the end of the Second World War established binding rules about economic activity. Currency was fixed to the gold value of the US dollar. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) was created. Systems of trade were developed through the General Agreement on Tarriffs and Trade (GATT) in 1947, which was later to become the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 1995.

Between 1945 and the early 1970s, nations’ economies worked through interventionism (government spending) with a freemarket economy. This resulted in growth and full employment in the US and UK, for example.

By the late 1960s this system was not working and led to high inflation in the UK and similar economic problems in US. It was assumed that interventionism of Keynsian economics was no longer working. This gave way to neoliberalism, typified by the policies of Margaret Thatcher in the UK and US President Ronald Reagan. Neoliberalism is based on the belief that the freemarket is the ultimate economic arbiter, that the big state and state intervention hampers this. This includes the replacement of public services by outsourced and private providers and the privatisation of nationalised industries (Harvey, 2011).

Global trade increased from $57 billion in 1947 to an astonishing $14.9 trillion in 2010  (Steger, 2013). While millions were lifted out of poverty, levels of inequality within developed nations were increasing. For example in the US, between 2002 and 2007, the top 1 per cent seized 65 per cent of the national income growth (Stiglitz, 2012, p. 3). A similar pattern can be found in other developed nations under neoliberalism.

The global financial crisis in 2008 revealed that neoliberalism had fatal problems with its reliance on private debt and consumer spending as the basis of economic growth. The level of low-grade private debt in the US, resulted in the insolvency of banks which had a knock on effect around the world.

The political dimension of globalization

The political dimension of globalization goes beyond the nation-state. It sees the rise of super national organisations like the United Nations and the European Union. These, arguably, threaten the role of nation-states.


The nation-state in a globalizing world Source: Jan Aart Scholte, ‘The globalization of world politics’, in John Baylis and Steve Smith (eds.), The Globalization of World Politics, 2nd edn. (Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 22.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is one such international organisation. Founded in 1960, it has 35 member countries, its express aim is to stimulate economic progress and world trade.

The cultural dimension of globalization

This involves the spread of culture in a globalized world. Critics claim that culture can become overly homogenized, with dominance of powerful nations like the US. This has an impact on language, day-to-day life as well as arts and culture. There are clearly aspects of globalized culture that have an impact on education.

A brief history of comparative education

In 1959, the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) piloted a conceptual and methodological framework for large-scale international studies (Owens, 2013). These developed into a formalised First International Mathematics Study in 1964 (FIMS), a second between 1982 and 1983 (SIMS) and a third, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study in 1995 (TIMSS). These were designed to measure students’ problem solving skills. This developed through the 1980s and 1990s with expansions from maths and science to other subject areas. Since 1995, TIMSS has monitored trends in mathematics and science achievement every four years, at the fourth and eighth grades. TIMSS 2015 is the sixth such assessment, providing 20 years of trends. TIMSS 2015 can be found here.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) sponsored by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) was introduced in 2000. PISA is a triennial international survey which aims to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students. In 2015 over half a million students, representing 28 million 15-year-olds in 72 countries and economies, took the internationally agreed two-hour test. Students were assessed in science, mathematics, reading, collaborative problem solving and financial literacy.

The result of the 2015 survey are here.

Classroom research

While there have been the survey and assessment based approaches to comparative education research. Comparative studies have been undertaken of classroom practice.

TIMSS video study

The Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) 1999 Video Study is a follow-up and expansion of the TIMSS 1995 Video Study of mathematics teaching. The Teaching Gap: Best Ideas from the World’s Teachers for Improving Education in the Classroom (Stigler & Hiebert, 1999) compares practices in eighth-grade classrooms in Germany, Japan and the United States. It is a seminal work that highlighted cultural scripts in teaching as well as drawing attention to practices in South East Asia, including notably, lesson study. In my view it was this work initiated pedagogy-envy in the UK and to some degree the US. It was both the character of practice and results from assessment-based comparisons that created this phenomena. But I will return to this.

Larger and more ambitious than the first, the 1999 TIMSS Video Study investigated eighth-grade science as well as mathematics, expanded the number of countries from three to seven, and included more countries with relatively high achievement on TIMSS assessments in comparison to the United States. The TIMSS video study involved videotaping and analyzing teaching practices in more than one thousand classrooms.

Learners’ perspective study (LPS)

This built on the ideas and methodology of the TIMSS video study. Although a centralised methodology was developed at the University of Melbourne, by David Clarke and collaborators, data collection and analysis was undertaken by local teams in each jurisdiction. It examines the patterns of participation in competently-taught eighth grade mathematics classrooms in sixteen countries in a more integrated and comprehensive fashion than has been attempted in previous international studies. Research teams now participating in the Learners’ Perspective study are based in universities in Australia, China, the Czech Republic, Germany, Israel, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Norway, The Philippines, Portugal, Singapore, South Africa, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the USA.

The results of the Learner’s Perspective Study are reported in a Book Series, published by Sense Publishers . The first three volumes are: Mathematics Classrooms in Twelve Countries: The Insider’s PerspectiveMaking Connections: Comparing Mathematics Classrooms Around the World and Mathematical Tasks in Classrooms around the world. 

I reviewed the fifth volume, Algebra Teaching Around the World (Watson, 2016).

You can also find a discussion on cultural practices and scripts here. I am currently working on a paper with my colleagues, Lizzie Kimber and Louis Major looking at the role of cultural scripts and habitus in teaching.

What do comparative assessments tell us?

TIMSS 2015

The mathematics content can be found here. Achievement results are summarised using item response theory (ITR) scaling, with most achievements scores in the range 300 to 700.

The following charts present headline results from TIMSS 2015. The aim is to show comparative trends in achievement.


 PISA 2015

The following are headline trends from PISA 2015


Critique of comparative studies – from Askew et al. (2010)

Askew et al. (2010) present an analysis of the findings of assessment-based international comparisons:

  •  Findings from repeated TIMSS and PISA studies add to our knowledge of changes over time, but these international studies are limited by their lack of longitudinal data that examines learning through tracking the same pupils over several years of schooling (see Theme 2: What rankings tell us, page 18).
  • Not all high attaining countries have closed the attainment gap between pupils from differing socio-economic backgrounds (see Theme 7: Attainment gaps, page 28).
  • Findings from TIMSS suggest the match between curriculum content and the TIMSS test items matters more than teaching in explaining international differences, although the quality of teaching still has a significant effect on mathematical learning (see Theme 1: Impact of teaching, page 16).

And the following are specific observations.


Finland’s pupils have been considered high performers in mathematics given their success in recent PISA studies. Finland ranked first in 2003 (although the Canadian province of Ontario was the highest scoring) and second after Hong Kong in 2006. This success was a surprise both in Finland and elsewhere (Pehkonen, Ahtee, and Lavonen, 2007). Efforts to understand this achievement have been hampered by a limited research base. The Finnish education system consists of comprehensive school education at both primary and lower secondary levels. Children start school at the age of seven and there are nine years of compulsory schooling. All types of education in Finland are free and well supported.


Singapore’s educational structure comprises six years of primary, four years of secondary and two years pre-university. Only the first four years of primary follow a common curriculum: pupils follow one of two ‘orientation’ curricula in the last two years of primary, one of these being a reduced curriculum at a slower pace. There is a leaving exam at the end of primary: some pupils take a different exam if they have followed the ‘reduced’ curriculum. There are three courses at secondary school: around 60% of pupils follow an ‘express course’ leading to a GCE O-level in four years, 25% a ‘Normal’ (academic) course leading to O-level in five years (or an N-level in four years) and 15% in a ‘normal’ (technical) course leading to N-level. Between 20% and 25% of pupils continue to university. While the curriculum is centrally mandated and there is high-stakes assessment, schools have flexibility over the implementation of the curriculum. Since the 1990s there is no longer a single state-mandated textbook, with commercial publishers producing textbooks in an open market. A five-fold curriculum framework emphasises attitudes and meta-cognition as well as skills, concepts and processes. Compared to its near neighbours, Singapore’s pupils do report more enjoyment of mathematics.

 How valid are international studies?

It is not our intention to reiterate the arguments pointing out the difficulties and flaws in studies of international comparisons of mathematics education. For example, there may be considerable differences in the extent to which schools and students feel the tests are important. In PISA 2006 the comparison of first round school participation rates between Finland (100%) and the United Kingdom (76%) is telling. Perhaps more striking is the oft-quoted anecdote from TIMSS 1995 of Korean students marching into the examination hall behind the national flag. Others provide further cogent arguments into the shortcomings of TIMSS and PISA (see for example Brown, 1998; Goldstein, 2004).

The role of international comparisons

The purpose of the OECD for example is international economic activity and trade. However well meaning, the intentions of the organisation in the methodology and administration of PISA, education is framed in terms of trade and economics. Given the OECD’s role in globalization, it is necessary to question what impact it has on global education. It is fundamentally committed to economic globalization and questions have to be asked about its impact on equality. Capitalism, in particularly neoliberalism, increases competition by creating markets in public services[1]. Within this system, there are winners and losers and hence inequality is advanced. On the other hand, PISA and TIMSS are useful in looking at trends in educational performance within individual countries. Assuming, that is, the measures represent ‘quality’ in education. This, though, is a major assumption.

Comparisons of practices in different countries are valuable in understanding pedagogy and practice within different cultures. There is a danger that, taken with assessment-based comparisons, aspects of practice are copied, with an assumption of causality.  England has been invested in policy borrowing, and at times, cherry picking aspects from so-called high-performing jurisdictions. However, this overlooks the complexity of the systems being borrowed from and naive assumptions about causality.

As the global and economic landscape changes rapidly, as capitalism stumbles through another crisis, it is necessary to rethink the role of international comparisons. Greater attention needs to be given to social justice and the environment as opposed to a preoccupation with growth which leads to and exacerbates inequality.

We need to pay more attention to the local, within a globally connected world. Development needs to attend to geographical and cultural locality, it is through this that local communities are empowered. We also need to think about what a mathematics education might look like. Is it in the kinds of assessments used in PISA or TIMSS, and does it look like the kinds of practices we see in video studies across the world? I am not sure that it does, but that is for another time.

Finally, as I have argued elsewhere, we need to consider the driving forces of political economy. We thought we had reached the end of history in this respect and our attention to this had subsided. The global financial crisis has restarted history, we have to consider the globalized forces that impact on what we do in education.


[1] Since writing this I discovered the following article on the impact of PISA in Europe.

Grek, S. (2009). Governing by numbers: the PISA ‘effect’ in Europe. Journal of Education Policy, 24(1), 23–37.


Askew, M., Hodgen, J., Hossain, S., & Bretscher, N. (2010). Values and variables: Mathematics education in high-performing countries. London: Nuffield Foudation.

Harvey, D.(2011). A brief history of neoliberalism (Reprinted). Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

Owens, T. L. (2013). Thinking beyond league tables: a review of key PISA research questions. In H.-D. Meyer, A. Benavot, & D. Phillips (Eds.), PISA, power, and policy: the emergence of global educational governance (pp. 27–49). Oxford: Symposium Books.

Steger, M. (2013). Globalization: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press.

Stigler, J. W., & Hiebert, J. (1999). The teaching gap: Best ideas from the world’s teachers for improving education in the classroom. New York: Free Press.

Stiglitz, J. (2012). The price of inequality. London ; New York: Penguin Books.

Watson, S. (2016). Algebra teaching around the world. Research in Mathematics Education18(2), 211–214.


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