To the Editor:
Proposals for boosting the federal role in improving math and science education seem to be almost entirely addressed to increasing the supply of qualified teachers (“Bush Proposes Steps to Boost Math and Science Teaching,” edweek.org, Feb. 1, 2006). While this would be helpful, a major share of the problem is our math and science curricula. The math curriculum used nationwide delays the acquisition of knowledge, and the science curriculum is taught in an illogical and counterproductive order.
In mathematics, American 8th graders perform poorly on international tests because they have exhausted all possibilities short of algebra by 5th grade, and then spend the next several years stuck in neutral before beginning algebra in 8th or 9th grade. Algebra should start in 6th grade, and build from there.
In science, we teach biology, chemistry, and physics in alphabetical order, when, in fact, physics is the basis for real understanding of chemistry, and chemistry is the basis for real understanding of biology. The current curriculum runs backwards, and almost requires that students simply memorize facts, because the basis for their understanding does not exist.
The flawed math curriculum intersects with the science curriculum when we attempt to teach physics without some calculus. Real physics has not been done without calculus since the early 1700s, which means our instruction is three centuries out of date. Teaching some simple concepts like integrals and derivatives earlier would make physics instruction much better.
A major, nationwide revamping of math and science curricula is as important as teacher qualifications are in achieving real progress in these areas.
Richard J. Weader II