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Commission Hears of Science Gap

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Problems in U.S science and mathematics education were the subject of another high-level policy meeting last week, as the National Commission on Excellence in Education heard how students in other nations are prepared for a high-technology future.

Appointed by President Reagan last summer, the 18-member panel is charged with recommending improvements for the U.S. educational system. The group is holding a series of hearings across the country to gather expert and anecdotal testimony on aspects of American education. (A schedule of the commission's hearings appears on page 17.)

The basic message conveyed by a group of scholarly reports prepared for last week's meeting in Washington was that American education, in general, has sacrificed some key advantages of specialization to attain the egalitarian goal of general education for all.

According to the findings of one report on the Soviet educational system, prepared by Catherine P. Ailes and Francis W. Rushing of the Stanford Research Institute's strategic studies center:

The U.S.S.R. has secondary specialized schools whose graduates are "the principal source of the technical cadre that works under the direction of graduates of higher education, particularly in the engineering fields." The U.S. has no comparable educational program.

The Soviet high-school curriculum is "quite accelerated" in science and mathematics. As a result, "the Soviet secondary-school graduate has a far better training in mathematics and science than does his U.S. counterpart."

Although American elementary-school students receive slightly more science education than Soviet students, they receive "considerably" less mathematics education.

"Japan likewise stresses mathematics and science in its schools," concluded a study submitted by Barbara Burn and Christopher J. Hurn of the University of Massachusetts.

"The college-bound student takes six hours of mathematics weekly in grade 10, five and three respectively in grades 11 and 12," the report said.

Japan also set up science-education centers throughout the country in 1960 that offer "tuition-free programs to school teachers at all levels to upgrade their knowledge ... about the latest in science education techniques. Interestingly enough, these centers ... draw heavily on science curriculum studies [conducted] in the U.S.," the report said.

A third report presented at the meeting compared the mathematics curricula of Canada, Japan, the U.S.S.R., West Germany, and the U.S. "Proportionately fewer students in the United States are exposed to mathematics at lesser levels of difficulty and for less time in secondary schooling," it concluded.

"This is in spite of the fact that the best of the mathematics curriculum is presented to many students [in American schools], and that some of them in some schools are able to reach relatively advanced levels, that considerable professional effort goes to review and improve curricula, and that mathematics is widely regarded as important in the academic and broader community."

"Those countries that require their students to specialize at the upper secondary level stand out from those that lean toward a more general (and comprehensive) education. The United States has long been committed to the latter alternative," said the report. It was prepared by Max A. Eckstein of City University of New York, Kenneth J. Travers of the University of Illinois, and Susanne M. Shafer of Arizona State University.--E.W.

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