Little Progress Toward Math, Science Reforms Found
BOSTON--Mathematics and science instruction is only slowly changing to meet the goals of several school-reform blueprints, according to researchers who have studied a wide range of data on student behavior and attitudes and teacher preparation and practice.
Speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science this month, the researchers said they had drawn their conclusions after comparing the results of several national educational indexes with the expectations outlined in several reform documents.
The researchers, appearing at a session on empirical studies of educational change, said they had examined data from such indexes as the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the Longitudinal Study of American Youth.
The A.A.A.S.--which is supporting Project 2061, a long-term effort to reform the teaching of precollegiate science--scheduled the session as part of a daylong series of panels on school improvement tied to the theme of this year's meeting: "Science and Education for the Future.''
Among the researchers to highlight the mismatch between expectations and results was a team from Ohio State and Northern Illinois universities.
Despite the wide dissemination of standards developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the researchers said, classroom practice has not yet made a significant shift from the traditional drill-and-practice approach to one geared to problem-solving.
"The lecture and recitation mode still dominates in most classes,'' Thomas B. Hoffer of the social-science research institute at Northern Illinois said.
It appears, however, he said, that math teachers are following the N.C.T.M.'s recommendation that less emphasis be placed on the teaching of facts, principles, and computational skills.
The problem, he added, is that it is difficult to find corresponding evidence that more emphasis has been placed, as the standards recommend, on "problem-solving.''
Alan Osborne, an education professor at Ohio State, and Mr. Hoffer noted, however, that the standards have only been in place a few years and that accurate tools for measuring improvement must still be developed.
The researchers said they also found that high school students appear to be taking more math courses but that the increases generally come in algebra and geometry classes, not in higher-level courses.
Nonetheless, they noted, the finding is encouraging because it means that more high school graduates have been exposed to those subjects than was the case in the past.
The researchers said they reached their conclusions by comparing the impact that the N.C.T.M. standards have had on math teaching at the high school level with responses to the study of American youth and to "High School and Beyond,'' a longitudinal study of high school graduates.
The general pattern of making only incremental performance gains also appears to hold true among specific subgroups of students, one researcher said.
Karen Brown of the Chicago Academy of Sciences, noted that the American Association of University Women concluded in its recent report, "Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America,'' that girls seem to be taking more math and science classes and enrolling in more advanced courses.
But, she added, the underlying differences that produce the gender gap have yet to be fully explained or addressed.
"It does appear that the gender gap is decreasing in certain areas,'' she said. "But, in spite of the advances that have been made ... there are still questions as to why'' boys tend to outperform girls.
Researchers also told the A.A.A.S. session that a comparison of îáåð data with a vision of subject-matter competencies set out in "Educating Americans for the 21st Century,'' a report released a decade ago by the National Science Board, indicates that the educational preparation of most middle school math and science teachers has not improved to the degree called for.
"If you look at the objectives [from 1983] ... we've made progress,'' said Jon D. Miller, the vice president of the Chicago Academy of Sciences. "But we've certainly fallen far short of what they had in mind.''
Mr. Miller noted, for example, that, according to 1990 NAEP data, only 44 percent of middle school science teachers met the standards for competency set by the National Science Teachers Association.
Similarly, he said, only 38 percent of 8th-grade math teachers met the N.C.T.M.'s preparation standards for middle school teachers.
Application of Technology
One area where some progress is being made, and which seems to be positively influencing learning, is in the application of technology to math teaching, particularly in the case of the graphing calculator, researchers said at the A.A.A.S. session.
The calculator, a hand-held device with the same computing power as some early microcomputers, is "changing teacher's roles and student roles and almost forces teachers to teach differently,'' Mr. Hoffer said. "You can't make those claims for regular calculators.''
Mr. Miller also noted that, on the whole, middle school math and science teachers appear to be improving their familiarity with computers, though not at the rate envisioned in the 1980's.
"More sophisticated calculators are taking the place of what the
[science board] envisioned computers would do,'' he said. "But the
[report] envisioned a more technologically based curriculum than, in
fact, is now in existence.''