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Nations Face Similar Reform Challenges, Study Says

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Despite regional and cultural differences in their approaches to education reform, all industrialized nations face similar challenges in devising challenging science and math curricula, a new study says.

The Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a coalition of 25 industrialized countries, conducted the international study and has published the findings in a book called Changing the Subject: Innovations in Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education.

The study, which the OECD started in 1989, shows that all the industrialized countries studied are experiencing similar difficulties in making math and science accessible to all students.

"None of the nations participating in the study was satisfied with its existing programs in science and math," a summary of the research notes, "not even countries whose students score high on international comparisons of educational achievement."

Common Concerns

The book, written by Myron J. Atkin, a professor at the Stanford University school of education in Stanford, Calif., and Paul J. Black, a professor of science education at Kings College in London, includes case studies of reform projects from 13 nations: Australia, Austria, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Scotland, Spain, Switzerland, and the United States.

Among the U.S. projects profiled are Chemistry in the Community, or CHEMCOM, an initiative of the American Chemical Society; the math standards adopted by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics; Project 2061, a long-range curriculum-development project of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; and the Urban Mathematics Collaborative, a project financed by the Ford Foundation.

The study also highlights California's efforts to reform its science curriculum; the Kids Network, a distance-learning project for elementary school science; the PreCalculus Course, developed at a North Carolina science and math magnet school; and the Voyage of the Mimi, a televised exploratory math and science program.

Despite cultural differences, said Senta Raizen, the director of the Washington-based National Center for Improving Science Education, all of the nations studied are concerned about some common issues.

"For some of the same and some different reasons, many countries are pushing reforms that are very similar to those that are in train, at least rhetorically, in this country," she said.

Ms. Raizen was on the steering committee that prepared the material contributed by the United States for use in the report.

Different Approaches

She said that most of the participating countries have as a goal "making the system less elitist, so that more people have good science and math backgrounds."

A Spanish case study, for example, looked at the effects on classroom teaching and curriculum development of raising the mandatory-attendance age in that country from 14 to 16.

"They had a big interest in what kinds of science should they be teaching in those two years," Ms. Raizen said. "Now you had a whole new population; the issue was what kind of science were they going to get."

As is the case in the United States, many of the countries in the study also are interested in ways to make math and science instruction more relevant both to jobs and to students' own interests, she said.

Ms. Raizen said one crucial difference, however, between the approaches to reform in other countries, compared with those studied in the United States, is that only in the United States were reforms primarily launched by private entities.

"All of these innovations that were studied in the 12 [other] countries originate with the government, and none of ours, except for California, are in any way centrally initiated," she said. "Here, it's a much more entrepreneurial system of reform."

At the same time, many of the countries studied are looking not only at improving the quality of science and math education and increasing the number of girls and minority students enrolled in those courses, but also at how to decentralize their education systems.

"I can't imagine any other country going to our mode of innovation," Ms. Raizen said. "But when they look at us, they look at how innovation and implementation work in a highly decentralized country."

For More Information:

Copies of Changing the Subject: Innovations in Science, Mathematics, and Technology Education are available from ITP Routledge, 29 W. 35th St., New York, N.Y., 10001; (800) 634-7064. The clothbound version is $65; the paperback is $18.95.

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