TIMSS, PISA and Measures of Performance
In many countries, great attention is paid to the results of TIMSS and PISA evaluations. Whatever the merit of these programmes, they concern areas of secondary school teaching and learning which are not directly relevant to performance in international mathematics competitions.
This is because TIMSS and PISA are concerned with the quality of the education and learning among normal students (a very important matter). On the other hand, the results of international mathematics competitions concern the performance of a very small number of exceptionally talented students.
Perhaps a useful sporting analogy is available. It would not make sense to measure the general health and fitness of a national population by looking at the performance of Olympic athletes from that country. On the other hand, a country which has a very developed sports programme, with excellent facilities and coaches, is improving the health and fitness of its general population, and having an effect on its population which is much wider than the effect on elite sports people.
There is a significant relationship between exceptional performance in mathematics competitions and exceptional performance (in later life) in mathematical research. Here are examples of some of the world’s leading mathematicians who first came to prominence via mathematics competitions.
The equivalent of the Nobel Prize in mathematics is the Fields Medal. These are awarded every four years at the International Congress of Mathematicians,and up to four awards are made in each round. Thus the Fields Medal is awarded at the same rate as the Nobel prizes. Here are recent Fields medalists who have also participated in IMOs (Perelman refused to accept his Fields medal). Thus most recent Fields Medalists have been IMO participants.
The letters indicate the medal (if any) which the Fields Medalist received as an IMO participant.
There are similar extensive lists of IMO participants among the ranks of winners of other prestigious mathematics prizes.