You Can't Just Say, 'Let Them Take A Shop Course'
Education Week: The discussion suggests there are two major areas that need urgent attention in mathematics and science education: teaching and curriculum. We've talked about teaching. What is the problem with the curriculum, and what do we do about it?
Mr. Usiskin: I just have to read this, but I won't tell you the year. "In order that the school and college curricula meet the needs of mathematics itself and of its application, there must be a change. A new program oriented to the needs of the second half of the 20th century, and based on a dynamic conception of mathematics"--we could put science in there--"is required. The national need for mathematical manpower and a general feeling of dissatisfaction with the present state of affairs support the early introduction of such a new curriculum."
Mr. McCurdy: Is that dated in 1957?
Mr. Usiskin: No, 1959: "Demand for Improved Instruction."
Let me say at the outset that the situation in mathematics in schools is not the same as the situation in science in schools. Mathematics is in the elementary-school curriculum and every teacher teaches some mathematics, even though we might say that they don't teach enough.
Science, on the other hand, is not always in the elementary-school curriculum. Consequently, at the secondary-school level, thousands of concepts have to be introduced in a given year. You only have one year of biology, and you have to pack everything into that year. If science were taught at the elementary-school level, you could build on it and you wouldn't have this pressure.
Ms. Rowe: It really is dreadful. You go into classroom after classroom, and kids are copying down long lists of words, looking them up in their science books. There has been no major reorganization for a long time. Now we have this dictionary-type exposure, and no time to do lab, because lab is risk-taking and time-consuming.
Mr. Aldridge: I am convinced absolutely that the curriculum that we presently have in the secondary schools is inappropriate for all students, not just the middle group but the lower group as well.
In fact, if it were the right kind of curriculum, we would draw into those college programs in science and engineering the best and the brightest--not as, at present, those whose family income and socioeconomic status happen to correlate more highly with their being in that group than their native intelligence.
Mr. Usiskin: What you are saying is that we should aim a curriculum at the educated person: What do we want an educated person to know, rather than what do we want a future scientist or mathematician to know. If we said what we want an educated person to know, we would get our future scientists, engineers, and mathematicians.
Mr. Rutherford: Education, at least up to the secondary level, is fundamental. It can be based on the proposition that you don't know where people are going to end up, who is going to be in the priesthood, in the legislature, or in engineering. At any one time, you can probably lay out a pretty solid notion of the kinds of history, mathematics, literature, English, and science that people ought to know. Then the system can go about it as best it can, trying to develop the kinds of teachers who can teach those subjects, and the kinds of curricula that will support them, without having to make fine distinctions about whether a person comes out as a businessman or a sergeant in the Army.
Our failure, at least one of them, is to take that proposition seriously. Therefore, we sort of do this easy translation, or courses developed for a special class, and we jam it at everybody.
In a curriculum for the "educated person" there would be some physics, because it has been around for 300 years and it has changed our notions of the way anybody thinks about the world.
EW: But isn't it true that students who are not in the college-preparatory curriculum don't take chemistry, or geometry, or physics?
Mr. Rutherford: But you solve that by requiring all the students to take science, history, mathematics, and English every year. But then you have to dish out some science and math that makes sense for them. You can't just say, "The courses don't fit them, so let them take another shop course."
Mr. Pewitt: Exactly.
Mr. Usiskin: The problem is that these students even coming into high school are remedial, at least in mathematics. Almost half of the students are not ready for algebra in the 9th grade, and it is supposed to be a 9th-grade subject. They have taken eight years of arithmetic, and they are put into a remedial course.
Even if you decide that you want to make two years of mathematics a state requirement for graduation for all but learning-disabled students, there are students who after two years are not ready. I think it really is a problem that starts below the high-school level.
Mr. Rutherford: Of course it does. We're talking about the whole system.
Mr. Usiskin: Particularly for this group, the problem starts below the high-school level. The problem for the college-bound--those who are not going to be professional mathematicians and scientists--may start at the high-school level.
Mr. Rutherford: The point is that everybody who is bright enough to get into school can go through and learn chemistry, physics, or whatever you want, if you package it properly, and if you have enough real applications to the real world they know and understand. But it won't happen if the curriculum is not designed properly and if the teachers are not prepared to do it. The system would not provide it.
Mr. Usiskin: The kinds of solutions that are proposed in mathematics are of two types, at least for these problems. One solution, and it is the easiest one to implement, is to raise the requirements.
Mr. Pewitt: Then you ought to do that, or does anybody argue with that?
Mr. Usiskin: No one argues with that, but if you are teaching a curriculum that is really outdated, it can be so outdated that raising the requirements is not going to do much, except that it does give you space, and science needs that space in the curriculum more than mathematics needs it. That is why I said that there was a big difference between math and science. More mathematics is taught in schools today.
The second kind of solution says, no, it is not the requirements that are problem, it is what we are teaching. If you look at some of the reports that are coming out in mathematics, it is not so much raising the requirements that is called for, but rather that we have got to be doing some statistics; we have got to be doing some computers; everybody has got to have these things; we should take some things out of what we are teaching. It seems to me we need some of both solutions.
Mr. Aldridge: The National Science Teachers Association would agree that there ought to be an increased requirement for a totally different kind of content and approach. In fact, the first thing would be to eliminate the overlap and the repetition that occurs in physics, chemistry, and biology at the high-school and college levels.
At present, if you take those courses and go on to college, there is an enormous overlap between what you covered in secondary school and what you cover in college. This tells me that those high-school courses are not being used to teach anybody anything. They are being used as filters and they filter out certain elements of the student population.
EW: Is there any effort being made to make that change?
Mr. Aldridge: None whatsoever.
EW: How can you eliminate the overlap?
Mr. Aldridge: The only way that can happen, in my judgment, is through some kind of a concerted national effort to examine the content of those courses and the sequence, and to produce materials that have as major components applications to the technology, to the individual's own needs, and to society. Those kinds of applications are currently missing from the curriculum, for the most part.
Ms. Rowe: At the university, too.
Mr. Aldridge: That's right. We would argue that you create a curriculum of science that is useful and applicable for everybody. From the people who take that curriculum, through a process of enjoying it, liking it, learning something from it, being motivated by it, a certain proportion of those people are going to go and take college-level courses and become scientists and engineers. We argue that the makeup of that group would be vastly different if you made these changes and would not be of lower quality, but would probably be of higher quality.
Mr. Rutherford: When I went to Berkeley as an undergraduate, they did a study and found that Chemistry I-A was a course that everybody went to, and you ended up in this giant course, but after six weeks, they could not tell whether or not you had had high-school chemistry. A lot of people took that to be a bad sign, and it was still true when I taught high school out there.
I took it to be a good sign, meaning that if that is the case, you are free in high school to teach people to know the kind of science they need to know, and never worry about whether it is going to connect with some future course. But the failure to do that, then and now, to redesign the course to make sense in that way, has been part of the problem all along.
I think what happened in the 1940's doesn't matter so much; what the other countries are doing doesn't matter so much. The problem is that we know the kind of world we are moving into. We know the kinds of things that people have to learn, all people, and we are not mobilizing ourselves to get the curriculum and the teachers to be able to do that.
Mr. Aldridge: The point I am making is that the directions that are being taken now are to make courses "more rigorous"--which means to the simple-minded, "Make kids take more of that hard stuff." Again, that introduces the filter that prevents them from taking something less, or different, that would still enable them to enter those occupations later. It is my concern that we are simply going to increase the number of people filtered out and increase the dropout rate.
EW: Is there a need for a national curriculum in math and science?
Mr. Usiskin: I don't think anybody wants one single curriculum. I think even the people who would like to see a lot done at the federal level in this regard are not looking for a national curriculum.
Mr. Rutherford: We have a national curriculum. Anybody who is able to sit through school-board meetings knows that curriculum is not what they are going to get into, except when they want to censor something from time to time. By and large, they don't deal with curriculum. But they do approve the buying of textbooks. Textbooks are uniformly mediocre and look like each other. That is the national curriculum.
You know the apocryphal story about Conant, don't you? When he got religion and drove across the country observing high-school chemistry classes in the 1960's, going from East to West, he said he never missed a lesson.