Published Online: May 7, 1997

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The Splintered Curriculum

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We don't need a national road map, just a coherent vision.

In his State of the Union Address in February, President Clinton took significant strides toward improving education for all students by calling for, among other things: the establishment of national standards measured by reading tests for 4th graders and mathematics tests for 8th graders; and increases in spending for reading programs, school construction, and Internet connections for schools. ("Clinton Gives Top Billing to Education Plan," Feb. 12, 1997.)

The president should be commended for placing the education of our nation's children and young people, and the training of our workforce, as a top priority for the next four years. Nevertheless, for all his good intentions to have a positive effect, he must move beyond the ephemeral level of "policy talk" to improve the core business of education: the teaching and learning that goes on every weekday in this nation's classrooms. Simply put, the United States, when compared with its "competitor" nations, lacks a coherent vision of what students should know and be able to do, national standards and testing notwithstanding.

The findings from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study provide strong evidence that for school reform to be effective, the United States must remedy the splintered curriculum encountered daily by its students. ("U.S. Students About Average in Global Study," Nov. 27, 1996.)

As part of TIMSS, researchers evaluated the math and science curriculum content and instruction in over 40 countries at the 3rd and 4th, 7th and 8th, and 12th grade levels from 1992 to 1995. They found that math and science education in our country lacks a coherent vision: We teach a little of everything, but nothing in great depth. America's 7th and 8th graders, for example, cover more than double the number of math and science topics than do their counterparts in Japan. Germany's 7th and 8th graders, likewise, cover some 40 percent fewer math topics and 23 percent fewer science topics than do American students. But more, apparently, does not mean better. America's math and science curriculum is spread so thin that it limits opportunities for teachers to build on what students have already learned. Teachers in Germany and Japan teach many fewer topics, and typically only at one grade level, building on knowledge and skills developed in earlier grades. For example, fractions and decimals are typically completed in other countries well before junior high, yet they are included in the U.S. curriculum from the 4th grade through the 8th grade.

The current policy thrust toward national content standards is an important first step in correcting this situation. But the standards are unlikely, in their present form, to alter it substantially. The content standards in science, for example, represent a political compromise among competing science disciplines. They are a mile wide and an inch deep, with all topics having equal priority.

The TIMSS data should be used to address the lack of focus and dilution of topics in our curriculum and to create alternative visions.

The splintering of the curriculum is exacerbated by textbook publishers. To ensure widespread adoption across the 50 states, publishers produce textbooks that are a mile wide and an inch deep to appeal to this diverse market. Moreover, to be current with the latest policy initiative (standards today), they revise their texts by accretion, not tough priority decisions, by continually adding new material called for by one or another set of standards. TIMSS has found that the United States is No. 1 in one area of mathematics and science: Our country has the fattest textbooks of the 40-plus nations participating in the study.

Furthermore, national examinations, such as the Stanford Achievement Test and the National Assessment of Educational Progress, contribute to the splintering. These exams test for this wide range of material.

The teachers, then, are simply "doing their job." They reported to TIMSS researchers that they attempt to teach all of the topics in the textbook and on the standardized tests: That's the nation's message to them.

The splintered curriculum encountered by our students may very well account for why their performance on the international math and science achievement test fell below national aspirations. Further research with TIMSS data will shed light on this conjecture.

Some may infer from the TIMSS findings that we need a "national" curriculum to improve students' achievement. But such a "one size fits all" curriculum could not be hammered out in our country. What makes education succeed as well as it has in our diverse society is the opportunity for parents, politicians, educators, and the public to debate alternative visions of education from vastly different value positions. Local education represents a compromise among these positions. Research using TIMSS data can and should provide a range of curricular visions, drawn from our country and others, to focus state and local debate on alternatives likely to raise achievement.

Our government has invested $30 million in collecting the Third International Mathematics and Science Study data, an investment we cannot afford to squander by resorting to sound bites that lament the sorry state of math and science education. There are no silver bullets here; no simple policy-talk fixes. We need to focus our curriculum and raise the level and quality of the mathematics and science taught in our schools. The TIMSS data should be used to address the lack of focus and dilution of topics in our curriculum and to create alternative visions. As we gather, debate, and implement these new approaches, we must also commit the resources to sustaining and evaluating education reform long enough to have an impact on the achievement of all of our nation's children.


Richard Shavelson, the dean of Stanford University's school of education in Stanford, Calif., is a member of the U.S. steering committee for the Third International Mathematics and Science Study and the chairman of the National Academy of Sciences' board on testing and assessment.

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