Is the Race to ... The Most Educated?

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Late last month, the Nissan Motor Corporation's new plant in Smyrna, Tenn., produced its first 160 light trucks. The $300-million plant, which employs 2,200 American workers, is one of two in the United States owned by Japanese firms.

Officials at Nissan and other Japanese companies for years resisted pressure from the Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry to build a plant in the U.S., according to industry analysts. The ministry wanted the U.S. plants to counter a growing protectionist movement here.

That Japan felt a need to placate the American public is indicative that the U.S. might be losing the economic and strategic edge that it has held since World War II, experts say. And one major reason for the danger, they say, is that American mathematics and science education poorly prepares students for a technological society.

Isaak Wirszup, professor of mathematics at the University of Chicago, goes so far as to claim that "the education crisis is a threat to our national security." The National Commission on Excellence in Education apparently concurred in that view, declaring in its report: "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might have viewed it as an act of war."

Since 1966, when the Soviet Union enacted reforms to provide a strong, comprehensive program of math and science education, it has moved "far ahead" of any other nation in such training, Mr. Wirszup contends. "The Russians wouldn't waste all that money unless it was for military power and political power," he says.

According to a National Science Foundation report, the Soviet Union, Japan, and West Germany have been able to parlay improvements in mathematics and science instruction into significant military and economic gains.

Those countries' education systems have developed a workforce, the report states, "which, at all levels, has a relatively high degree of science and mathematics skill, and this has been a factor in the very rapid expansion of technical industries."

Herbert J. Walberg, research professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, agrees. "The Japanese are very fastidious about the product," says Mr. Walberg. "Henry Ford says genius is attention to details. That's the result of hard work in schools, six days a week."

Between 1963 and 1977 Japanese industrial productivity grew 197 percent; the U.S. growth rate for the same period was 39 percent. Education was by no means the only or most significant factor involved in that difference, economists point out, but it was an important one.

The Nobel Prize-winning economist Theodore W. Schultz notes that studies of education and entrepreneurial activity clearly show "the pervasiveness of the favorable effects of schooling on the ability to deal with ... economic modernization."

Typical of society's increasing need for knowledge of math and science is the military. About three-fourths of all Army and Navy jobs now require some technical expertise, according to Leopold E. Klopfer and Audrey B. Champagne of the University of Pittsburgh's Learning Research and Development Center.


The limited data available comparing mathematics and science achievement among students of different countries show U.S. students faring poorly, except among the top 5 to 10 percent of the students. At this level, U.S. students perform as well as or better than those of any country.

The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (iea), an organization funded by the governments of several countries, is the only group that has tested students in several nations on the same subject matter.

A 1970-71 iea survey of science achievement in 19 countries found that students in the U.S. and other countries learned similar things with similar success in the early grades, but that disparities in achievement grew in the later grades. The tests included 10-, 14-, and 18-year-olds. The American 18-year-olds finished last in the rankings.

Educators point out that the U.S. scores are affected by a policy of compulsory school attendance for all. The sample group of American students who took the test, for example, represented the 75 percent of American youths who attend high school at age 18; the sample represented only the 9 percent of West German youths of the same age who attend the Gymnasium, the upper-level high school.

But even by comparision with students in countries that also have mass-attendance policies, U.S. students performed poorly. Japanese 18-year-olds were not included in the test, but at the 14-year-old level, which had an enrollment rate of 99 percent, Japanese students scored better than those of any other country. Five other countries with similarly high rates of enrollment performed better than U.S. students at that level. (The survey did not include the Soviet Union or East Germany.)

An earlier iea survey of mathematical achievement found the same pattern.

"Elite" American students perform as well as those of other countries, but Mr. Wirszup and other experts argue that those U.S. advantages are overshadowed by the fact that the great majority of the population is "illiterate" in basic mathematical and scientific concepts.

"It's absolutely a mistake," Mr. Wirszup says, to believe that only a strong "elite" is required for a strong economy. "The industrial countries until recently looked to the elite. But the educational mobilization in the Soviet Union for high-technology ... means that that isn't enough anymore."

Twenty-four countries are now taking part in a new iea survey for mathematics, and 30 countries are participating in an iea science survey. Analyses of the testing probably will not be completed for three or four years, according to the organization.

Experts do not expect the U.S. to look much better on the new surveys. They point to an April report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress and to recent trends in educational policy in the U.S. and other countries.

The naep report found slight gains in "routine" mathematics skills such as computation, but a decline in problem-solving skills. For example, 48 percent of a representative sample of 17-year-old students incorrectly answered this problem: "A hockey team won five of the 20 games it played. What percent of the games did it win?" A higher percentage of students failed to solve complex word problems.


But even the most ardent critics of U.S. education acknowledge that the foreign systems have their own disadvantages.

Japanese schools may have more rigorous precollegiate programs, but American higher education is considered vastly superior. While the Soviet Union requires its students to take more advanced classes than the U.S., intense specialization reduces opportunity for career mobility. And West German families must decide their children's course of formal education when the students are in the fourth grade.

None of the foreign education systems, the experts add, offer students as much choice as the American system. That freedom often is criticized for allowing students to avoid courses in the sciences. But Willard Jacobson, professor of mathematics and science education at Columbia University's Teachers College, asserts that it is also the most decisive factor in the nation's economic creativity.

"We should not try to imitate other countries," says Mr. Jacobson, who is also a member of the iea committee studying science education. "We ought to build on our own strength--the freedom to try different things. We can release a great deal more energy" in academic pursuits than other countries.

But some experts have identified areas in which other nations excel that they believe deserve serious consideration here. Chief among these are teacher training, time on task, national academic standards, and the use of a "spiral" curriculum.

Teacher training. In nations with higher levels of student achievement in mathematics and science, special care is taken to nurture able students for teaching roles, researchers point out.

Margrete Siebert Klein, a program officer at the National Science Foundation, notes that prospective teachers in both East and West Germany are among the most academically inclined students in those countries. Only university students, who have been extensively screened before being admitted, are eligible to become teachers.

"In West Germany, only the students who go to the Gymnasium [the upper-level high school] and pass [a special examination] go on to college, and you have to go to college to be a teacher," Ms. Klein says. She added that only university-educated students in East Germany, or the top 12 percent of students, are eligible to be teachers in East Germany.

Japanese and Soviet teachers also must survive a rigorous screening process to attend college, and therefore are considered to be among the best students in the country. The Soviet Union produces in one year the total number of physics teachers that are now teaching in the U.S., Mr. Wirszup says, and their training is superior. Soviet secondary teachers must receive training in their fields that is comparable to the level of a U.S. master's program, he says.

Time on Task. Most other nations require their students to take courses in mathematics and science throughout their years in high school. U.S. standards vary from state to state, but probably less than 10 percent of the course time in American high schools is devoted to math and science, according to Ms. Klein.

A national guideline in Japan requires 25 percent of classroom time in grades 7 through 9 to be devoted to math and science. In the 9th through the 12th grades, nearly all Japanese students take four math and three science courses; only 34 percent of all American high-school students complete three math courses, according to Paul deHart Hurd, a highly regarded expert in science education who is now retired from the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University.

Japanese students attend school five days a week from 8:30 A.M. to 3:15 P.M. and on Saturdays until noon. Schools are in session for 240 to 250 days a year compared with an average of 180 days in the U.S.

The Soviet schedule is similar to the Japanese, and the emphasis on math and science is greater. Students study mathematics during all 10 years of their formal schooling, including calculus courses in both the 9th and 10th grades. In recent years, about 5 million Russian high-school graduates have studied calculus, compared with about 100,000 Americans, Mr. Wirszup says. All Soviet students also study mechanical drawing and astronomy, subjects that receive little attention in most American schools.

Rustin Roy, a science fellow at the Brookings Institution and a key figure in the development of "science appreciation" courses, asserts that the U.S. is so far behind the Soviet Union and Japan in math and science education that it has no hope of catching up any time soon. "Appreciation" courses offer the only cost-effective means of introducing students to the importance of science and technology in society, he says.

"Spiral" curriculum. Most countries with advanced systems use a "spiral" curriculum, in which algebra, geometry, trigonometry, biology, chemistry, and physics are taught in a sequence over several years. In the U.S., such subjects are usually taught as one-year courses.

The strongest asset of the spiral approach, Ms. Klein and others say, is that it blends the course material of subjects so that students can understand how they are related. For example, principles in mathematics and physics that reinforce each other are taught at the same time.

The spiral curriculum also allows schools to introduce the subject in "concrete" ways before engaging students in abstract principles.

The experts disagree on whether U.S. schools do an adequate job of familiarizing students with the concrete before teaching them abstract principles.

Mr. Jacobson of Columbia University and the iea science committee says that early analyses of the international study indicate that U.S. schools do a "very, very good" job familiarizing elementary-school students with plants and animals, magnetism and electronics, and other basic topics.

"We have kids working with materials, doing 'hands-on' work," Mr. Jacobson says. "I think the U.S. does a very good job."

Still, American elementary schools often lack the basic equipment necessary to run a sophisticated program, he notes. And American elementary-school teachers do not specialize in subject areas as they do in other countries.

Others say that the American school system should give students basic work in subjects such as chemistry and physics before high school.

Those subjects now are taught in one-year courses.

In Japanese schools, field trips and experiments closely tied to textbook material are stressed for the primary-school students. In their first six years, students spend one-third of their time working on "hands-on" activities. Middle-school students spend one-seventh of their time on such work, and high-school students spend one-ninth of their time on such work.

Japanese schools also use "semiconcrete" representation of numbers to teach children mathematics, as opposed to the counting-up or counting-down strategy. Students work with numbers in fives, with each number having a pattern that a student can visualize. Japanese officials say the American stress on counting leads children to see numbers as abstractions.

J.A. Easley Jr., professor of teacher education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says Japanese students are able to write simple equations in the 1st grade and to understand word problems and everyday uses of math at an early age. According to a National Science Foundation report, 75 percent of American students are taught arithmetic for nine years or more. The result, the experts agree, is that students do not learn the "higher order" skills until they reach junior high school.

Some educators believe the spiral approach would not work in the U.S. because of the many levels of responsibility for education. A spiral curriculum would need to be coordinated at a national level so that a student would not repeat some course material and miss other material when he or she moves to a new school.

National standards. According to Benjamin Bloom, professor of education at the University of Chicago, the biggest difference between the American education system and others is its decentralization. All other developed countries have a national curriculum.

Leadership in the United States is "absent," F. James Rutherford, the education director of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, charges in a book to be published this fall. The curriculum, he writes, is a "model of inefficiency," with "no planned sequence."

Efforts to upgrade the curriculum, says Mr. Bloom, have consistently fallen short because of the lack of central control. With no national curriculum, Mr. Bloom and others say, mobile American families often see their children take some courses twice and others not at all, and the level of course content varies.

Many educators point out that the absence of a formal national curriculum has resulted in less rigorous textbooks. "Things tend to be reduced to the lowest common denominator" because publishers are competing for several different school markets, says Mr. Walberg.

Vol. 02, Issue 39

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